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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: EWU-UM rivalry could use some spice

John Blanchette Correspondent
No one was calling it the Lame Duck Bowl because, well, you don’t say that about retirees – or about a guy whose future’s so bright he has to wear shades, even on a stony gray day. Still, there is every chance that the next time Eastern Washington and Montana meet on the football field, someone new could be in charge on each sideline. Might not hurt. Sure looks as if this relationship could use a dash of something. Not that the Eagles’ 37-20 dispatch of the Grizzlies was necessarily humdrum, and as Saturday’s action in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs went it held its entertainment value longer than most games. But then, the day’s results had the overall competitive heft of NCAA first-round women’s hoops. Still, it’s funny to recall back when EWU’s tight little circle seemed vexed that the Grizzlies wouldn’t acknowledge even the hint of a rivalry – and now the Eagles have all but expunged it. Four wins in a row? Five of the last six? Nine playoff wins in the last five years to Montana’s three? A tension-free three-score breather in an FCS loser-out? Rivalries need more juice than this. For whatever local handwringing there was that the Grizzlies were coming into this rematch on a roll, that the revenge vibe was on their side and that the Eagles would have that Tin Woodsman thing going on from having played just two games in a month, Eastern’s victory in front of 7,919 had a distinctly workaday feel. The Eagles blocked a punt halfway through the first quarter, turned it into a quick 7-0 lead and then spent three quarters playing big-meanie keep away. Really, the only drama was whether the replay official was ever going to give the Eags a break. They had a fumble recovery overturned when the video revealed the loose ball brushed Marcus Saugen’s leg as his upper half was out of bounds. Then tight end Jake Withnell’s sensational dive at a Vernon Adams pass in the end zone just before halftime was ruled no catch, and upheld. “I just needed the ref to give me the benefit of the doubt,” Withnell joked. “Hey, if it’s Cooper Kupp, they’re giving it to us, am I right?” But the Eags punched it in four plays later anyway, using up all but the last 9 seconds of the half, and then made it a 2-for-1 with a 75-yard touchdown march after the post-recess kickoff for a 20-3 lead. “A little of that arena (football) mentality,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin called it. But the rest of Eastern’s game was all outdoor grind. Over the last three quarters, the Eagles had the ball twice as long and they did it on the ground – 212 yards, compared with just 51 in the meeting a month ago. Quincy Forte, out five of the last eight games with injuries, was whole enough to account for 128 himself, though retiring Montana coach Mick Delaney insisted Adams’ footwork was more damaging. “We’d get him once in a while, but then he gets away – and when he does, he always makes a play,” Delaney said. “That’s the thing that’s going to extend them hopefully into a national championship.” This is indeed the prize being eyed by the Eagles, and they have to like their chances. There’s another home game next Saturday against Illinois State. FCS bully North Dakota State looked awfully human in this round. Top-seeded New Hampshire, well, it can’t even win a regional syrup taste-off, can it? But what has the Eagle colony in a fret is the sticky situation of someone poaching its coach. Baldwin is a rare bird in sleepy Cheney – a name with real buzz. The first noise came early last week out of Missoula, where the Grizzlies could use some splash in replacing Delaney. Baldwin politely but firmly demurred, and repeated again Saturday that “I’m not going to be the head coach at another FCS school unless they kick me out of here.” Then Colorado State and Oregon State opened – one program just revived by a former Eagle, the other apparently shopping on a budget. And while he said he’s heard from neither, he acknowledged again that he’d “absolutely listen.” “I don’t think it’s a problem – I’m so invested into what we’re doing here and the excitement of the playoffs, that’s where my mind is going to be,” Baldwin insisted. “At the same time, when situations arise, I have to still look at things.” So how much is it weighing on his Eastern players? “If you’re asking me, none at all,” center Jase Butorac said. “I’m happy for him if it works out that way and that’s his decision. He’s earned everything he gets. But first and foremost, I know he wants to win another national championship.” Forte agreed: “Whatever happens, he’s here right now – and we’re on our way.” Nothing lame about that.
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