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Eastern players and coaches embrace a tough September schedule

Eastern Washington University coach Beau Baldwin has his team pointed toward a difficult opening month. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University coach Beau Baldwin has his team pointed toward a difficult opening month. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

So, Eastern Washington football fans … about that September schedule.

Stop whining, because the Eagles players and coaches aren’t about to complain. As coach Beau Baldwin says, “It’s a chance for us to do special things.”

Eastern certainly has a chance to do that next month against the likes of resurgent Washington State, five-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State, fifth-ranked Northern Iowa and Big Sky Conference preseason favorite Northern Arizona.

That’s four games in four weeks against teams who went 38-16 last year, and all figure to be even better this season.

Then again, so do the Eagles, who were 6-5 last year and are seeking to reclaim their elite status.

“When I sit down with (athletic director) Bill Chaves and talk about the games we have the opportunity to play, we get excited about putting ourselves on that stage and in that challenging moment,” Baldwin said.

There will be many challenging moments next month, thanks to a schedule that looks much tougher than when it was drawn up. When EWU and WSU announced this year’s game in the summer of 2013, the Cougars were coming off a 3-9 season under first-year coach Mike Leach. Now WSU (9-4 last year) is ranked in the Top 25 in several FBS preseason polls.

“When you schedule far out, you don’t know what’s going to transpire,” Chaves said.

However, Eastern is grateful for the opportunity to play on Sept. 3 in Pullman. Besides a nearly half-million-dollar payday for the athletic department, the players get a chance to test themselves against the best and the fans get an easy road trip.

“I’m appreciative of WSU being willing to play us and the same goes for UW,” Chaves said. “Our guys like the challenge and it’s great for our fan base.”

Money games are a given for EWU, what about those back-to-back games against Missouri Valley Conference powers NDSU and Northern Iowa? Isn’t one enough?

It isn’t that simple.

Nonconference FCS games are tough to schedule for teams west of the Mississippi. Asked about the chances of playing a middling team from a lesser conference, Chaves said FCS teams are reluctant to fly to the Northwest.

“And if they are willing to step on a plane, would they want to come here or somewhere else?” Chaves said. “In most cases, they would want to go someplace else.”

That leaves the MVC as the best alternative. “So we end up playing each other,” Chaves said.

NDSU’s recent success is no secret, and the home-and-home series has been eagerly awaited by fans of both schools. Northern Iowa is another matter: when the home-and-home contract was finalized in January 2014, the Panthers were coming off seasons of 5-6 and 7-5.

Since then, UNI has been a program on the rise and looks to contend for MVC and national honors. Meanwhile, the NAU game falling in September was merely the luck of the draw.

No matter, the Eagles are eager for the challenge.

“Our guys relish the opportunity, and want to be on that stage,” Baldwin said.

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