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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eagles again fall asleep at the wheel

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

It’s a good thing, to be in the driver’s seat. But the rig doesn’t go anywhere unless you press the gas.

Or what else? Get it in gear? Inflate the tires?

Make the payment?

We could torture the car analogy from now until November, but frankly the Eastern Washington Eagles have to be feeling tortured enough at this point, what with the endless-loop vision of Wiley King cruising free behind their secondary and running off with their football season.

Oh, it ain’t over, exactly. But after Saturday’s unnerving 28-23 loss to Weber State, it’s headed for the cliff.

It seems to be the darnedest thing, getting a football team to live in the moment and not in last week’s euphoria or the next fan’s backslap. A coaching staff has six days to get that done, and still there’s a chance that the whole operation might decide to rest on the seventh.

Hey, there’s precedent for it.

Also, the fourth quarter: The teams in our part of the college football neighborhood might want to consider playing it first from now on.

Along with many successes, there have been any number of oops-ish EWU losses over the years at Woodward Field – the previous one, for instance, when a final-play touchdown beat the Eagles in last season’s NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. It may be stretch to say this one hurt more than that one or any others, but not much of one.

For one thing, there was a swell crowd – 8,696, largest in Woodward history for a team not named Montana – buzzed from a terrific tailgate on a world-class day just waiting for a little dessert to last week’s entrée of ground Grizzly. At EWU, they don’t get nearly enough opportunities to send everyone home sated – and once again, it didn’t happen.

Beyond that, this was supposed to be the Year of the Eag. Instead, it’s become the Year of Egad, What Next?

Eastern isn’t mathematically eliminated, but with a month to go in the season it’s still behind three teams in the loss column. From a much-lamented string of injuries – right now the count is five starters out, along with a few other featured players – to an upset loss at Idaho State in the Big Sky Conference opener to this homecoming indignity at the hands of last year’s bottom feeders, Eastern is having a hell of a time not losing its balance while taking bows.

Perhaps this is a problem.

“Backs against the wall – that’s where we play our best,” said receiver Eric Kimble, already looking to the presumed rebound. “That’s where we come out on top. Maybe we need this to make people realize we’re not that good yet and we just need to work harder.”

Well, the last part seems to ring true. As they were constituted Saturday, the Eagles weren’t that good – “not good enough with our injuries,” as coach Paul Wulff said, “to put them away.”

But even that merits amendment. Health wasn’t the only thing lacking.

“There was something missing,” agreed nose guard Harrison Nickolao. “What was missing was the sense of coming out and taking control instead of living off the great momentum from last week.”

Echoed Wulff: “We were flat.”

Kimble was even blunter.

“We didn’t have very much focus before the game,” he said. “People weren’t enthusiastic like they should have been.

“People thought it was going to be an easy game and were just loafing around and not playing hard, just because we were playing Weber State. The coaches were emphasizing that Weber State is a good team, but we didn’t realize it until the fourth quarter.”

This may have been reflected in the two early drives – including a 16-play march in which Eastern had first down at the Weber 1-yard line – that the Eagles could only redeem for field goals.

Or in the 2-minute drill Weber executed brilliantly out of a twins-wide set at the end of the half. Or in the lack of a pass rush, the inconsistent blocking out of the almost all-sophomore line, or the 90 yards in penalties.

Of course, once the Eagles discovered they were within a ballgame, they were without the full use of their playmakers. Both Kimble and quarterback Erik Meyer suffered cramps, to the point that Wulff had to scale back Meyer’s use of the rollouts and bootlegs that freed him from Weber’s delayed blitzes and use Kimble only on gotta-have-it third downs. Kimble still managed to rip off a long gainer that probably should have put the game away, but he went catchless the last 13 minutes.

Meanwhile, King – invisible for the Wildcats most of the year – picked the perfect time to make people take notice, hauling in two long scoring passes from Ian Pizarro, a curious piece of quarterback work with great instincts and a dubious touch.

“As inconsistent as we played as a team,” Wulff said, “we were still in control of the game – until they made enough big plays to go up on us.”

Well, maybe the Wildcats were owed those. Though they have 17 starters back from a team that was mostly just bad last year, the Wildcats might be leading the Big Sky if they’d shown the same fourth-quarter presence earlier in the month.

“We couldn’t finish Montana State because of their quarterback (and two turnovers), and we had five opportunities to put Montana away in the fourth quarter and couldn’t do it,” said coach Ron McBride, who has energized the Wildcats with a coaching staff that has four 60-year-old geezers on it. “You run the risk of feeling snakebit, but we just keep pushing and pushing and pushing them – and they keep playing.”

Good to know. Once you’re no longer in the driver’s seat, you have to get out and push.

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