PHOENIX – Hopefully the flight back from Arizona gave the Eastern Washington players and coaches a chance to appreciate the big picture.
No, not the Grand Canyon, although for the past two years it seemed the Eagles had put a fair-sized gulf between themselves and the rest of the Big Sky Conference: 14 consecutive conference wins, two straight conference titles and a pair of semifinal berths in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
All that changed in a matter of 51 seconds Saturday afternoon in Flagstaff, Arizona. In just four plays, the Eagles were completely whipsawed, from a five-point lead and owning the ball at the Northern Arizona 23, to a numbing 28-27 defeat.
The winning streak is gone, the Big Sky trifecta out of their hands and the road to the FCS title game far less likely to run through Cheney.
But don’t jump off the plane just yet, Eagles fans. The big picture is barely altered, provided the Eagles (7-2, 4-1) take care of business Saturday against a 3-5 North Dakota team that would love to have Eastern’s problems.
After that, there is a Senior Day showdown against a Montana team that just suffered a 41-21 loss at Cal Poly. Win those two and beat a mediocre Portland State team on Nov. 21, and the Eagles will again earn a high playoff seed – perhaps as Big Sky champs for the third straight year, provided Montana State (4-0) can find a way to lose one.
“You come back and learn from wins or losses – however they occur,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “Just like we’ve done all year, we’ll prepare the same way going into next week.”
For the fourth straight week, they’ll probably have to do it without All-American quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who has been out of the lineup since suffering a foot injury on Oct. 4. His replacement, redshirt sophomore Jordan West, struggled against the Lumberjacks defense, going 16 for 34 for just 171 yards. West’s numbers have declined over three starts – more a reflection of the tougher opposition since the 42-30 win at Southern Utah two weeks earlier.
That’s the same Southern Utah team that dismantled North Dakota 35-17 on Saturday – one more reason to stay patient, to trust West to get the job done on Saturday and not rush Adams back before his foot is fully healed.
But not even Adams can fix a defense that was 4 yards shy of giving up 500-plus for the sixth time in eight games. A young defensive line held up well, but when it mattered most, it was the veteran safeties who froze on the biggest play of the game, a 67-yard NAU completion that wobbled from the arms of a third-string quarterback into the hands of a receiver who had somehow gotten behind the coverage.
“I understand losing happens and it bugs me,” Baldwin said. “It’s not OK what happened, but it’s OK moving forward as long as I know our players are fighting and playing as hard as they can.”
The Eagles have done that while running at full-tilt most of the season. Five of their eight games have come down to the wire, including the last three.
Saturday’s game was a one-score affair from start to finish, with Eastern’s eight-point second-quarter lead being the biggest for either team.
“The stretch we’ve been on is tough,” said Baldwin, who’s also dealt with multiple injuries at running back, receiver, defensive line and cornerback.
The worst may be over. Overshadowed by defeat was a 219-yard day from running back Quincy Forte, who was back in action for the first time in five weeks. Wide receiver Cory Mitchell returned from a seven-week absence, and the Eagles continued to build depth for the future on the defensive line.
And the real big picture?
“Now we have to move forward and find a way to go 1-0 next week,” Baldwin said.
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