It took the bright lights of New York to bring a few young Eagles out of the shadows.
That should serve them well Saturday night, when Eastern Washington opens Big Sky Conference play in the harsh glare of Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
“I had a great time,” Eastern Washington defensive lineman Dylan Ledbetter said of last weekend’s trip to New York, where the Eagles not only saw the sights but also found a sight for sore eyes – their first win of the season.
Ledbetter and wide receiver Dre’Sonte Dorton were two of the younger players who had breakout games in a 56-21 win over Fordham.
“I’m just trying to make every opportunity special and keep making plays for the team,” said Dorton, a redshirt sophomore who averaged almost 30 yards on four kickoff returns and also had two catches to help the Eastern passing game break out of a two-game slump.
The biggest confidence-booster was a dominating performance by Eastern’s defensive line, which lost all-Big Sky nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli a week earlier against North Dakota State.
The next man up was Ledbetter, who struggled in that game but thrived in the Big Apple. After a slow start, the Eagles manhandled the Fordham O-line to the point where they lost count of the sacks.
“We were counting them on the sideline and we thought there were 12,” said Ledbetter, a redshirt sophomore from West Seattle.
That was a trifle overoptimistic, but the Eagles (1-2) still recorded a school-record 10 sacks.
“It was super-cool to be a part of that,” said Ledbetter, who had two of them along with a career-high eight tackles – not bad for a 260-pound nose tackle who’s still growing into the job.
Ledbetter needs a lot of growing to match the 320-pound Tiuli, who also is out for this week’s game at Montana. Mentally, Ledbetter is getting up to speed in a hurry.
“Jay-Tee has been great,” said Ledbetter, who played in the rotation last year behind Tiuli. “He sets a great example and really takes it to heart, making us master our craft.”
Other new and not-so-new faces made an impact in New York. Junior tight end Henderson Belk caught two passes, including his first touchdown on a 5-yard pass from quarterback Gage Gubrud.
Wide receiver Nsimba Webster had five catches for a career-high 101 yards.
Three true freshman also had big days. Linebacker Chris Ojoh had the best game of his career with five tackles, including a half-sack. Wide receiver Johnny Edwards IV had his first two collegiate catches and defensive back Anfernee Gurley had his first forced fumble and pass breakup.
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