Give it time, Eastern Washington football fans.
In a few days, the just-completed football season will look a whole lot better and won’t be defined by Saturday’s 40-38 semifinal loss to Youngstown State.
And especially not by one play.
Certainly the coaches and players didn’t feel that way, even moments after one of the toughest defeats in school history.
“I was proud of them before we even kicked off this football game,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said after losing to the Penguins 40-38 on a last-second touchdown pass.
“I’m proud of the way they handled so many situations coming into this season and how they approached and attacked the offseason,” Baldwin said.
Now they’ll do it again this year – try to attack the offseason with the same ferocity they did following the 6-5 season of 2015. The result was a seven-game turnaround that even the most optimistic booster couldn’t have foreseen from a team with big questions at quarterback, offensive line and the entire defense.
The payoff was a 12-2 record – tied for the second-best in school history – a big win at bowl-bound Washington State, a fourth Big Sky Conference title in five years and a third appearance in the FCS semifinals in the last five years. No FCS team outside the state of North Dakota has a better pedigree during that period.
And that’s the problem: high expectations created by success under Baldwin, who is 85-31 overall and 11-5 in the postseason after nine seasons in Cheney. Six of those years ended in the postseason, including the national title winners in 2010.
Fan support has soared since then, along with the fickleness of a few after three semifinal losses by a combined nine points. The last two played out with eerie similarity: against both Towson in 2013 and Youngstown State, the Eagles held a two-score lead in the fourth quarter but their defense couldn’t get a stop when it mattered most.
That was particularly galling after EWU had been putting up strong defensive numbers since midseason and had pitched seven scoreless quarters in the playoffs going into Saturday.
This time the Eagles gave up three scores in the final quarter, and the Samson Ebukam-led sack machine managed just two all game. YSU quarterback Hunter Wells, a dropback passer, was just mobile enough and was protected by a big, physical offensive line that helped the Penguins rack up 275 yards on 60 plays in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Eastern offense had just four second-half possessions, breaking even with two TDs, a punt and an interception. However, Eastern managed to run just 17 plays after halftime.
The chilly weather was less of a factor that Youngstown State, said Baldwin, who added that YSU was getting “decent pressure” on quarterback Gage Gubrud in the second half “so sometimes it was a little tougher to let some things develop.”