In the years following Eastern Washington’s lone national title, the Eagles were a thorn in the Pac-12 North’s side.
A 49-46 upset at No. 25 Oregon State in 2013, a 45-42 win at Holiday Bowl-bound Washington State in 2016, and narrow losses to the Cougars in 2012 (24-20) and at Washington in 2011 (30-27) and 2014 (59-52) gave EWU that reputation.
But in Week 2 of the Eagles’ 2010 championship season, they were the big boys holding off a smaller, upset-minded program.
EWU escaped Qwest Field – the Seattle Seahawks’ venue now known as CenturyLink Field – with a 35-32 win over NCAA Division II Central Washington in the “Battle of the Sound,” a game hosted by both in-state schools.
“That was a good Central team, I remember,” said Greg Herd, a sophomore receiver at EWU in 2010. “It was closer than we would have liked, but it was a win. Doesn’t matter if we won by a single point, or by 50, it’s a win. I’ll take that every day of the week.”
The Eagles were ranked No. 17 in NCAA Division Football Championship Subdivision media poll and CWU checked in at No. 12 in the D-II poll, a season after the Wildcats finished No. 3 and advanced to the national quarterfinals.
CWU, which was 1-1 heading into the Sept. 11 game, was led by third-year head coach Blaine Bennett – now the head coach at Post Falls High School – who had one of the nation’s toughest defenses, led by future Canadian Football League star linebacker Adam Bighill.
EWU, a week removed from a 49-24 season-opening loss to Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada Wolfpack, was coached by Beau Baldwin, the ex-CWU head coach who left Ellensburg for Cheney after the 2007 season.
Baldwin was tasked with facing many of the players he helped recruit to CWU, including quarterback Ryan Robertson, who completed 29 of 46 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
EWU also had the mental task of not looking ahead. A week later, the Eagles would host rival and Big Sky Conference preseason favorite and 2009 national runner-up Montana in the first game on its now famous red turf at their newly revamped Roos Field.
Much like in their loss to Nevada, the Eagles’ offense sputtered early. Southern Methodist transfer quarterback and future star Bo Levi Mitchell didn’t start the game, but he replaced Nick Gauthier after seven snaps.
EWU didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter. Its lone first-quarter score came courtesy of a 55-yard interception return by linebacker Tyler Washburn on the game’s opening drive.
CWU scored on two drives to take a 9-7 lead heading into the second quarter before sensational EWU running back and current Buffalo Bills veteran Taiwan Jones gave the Eagles a 14-9 lead after a 2-yard touchdown run.
Later in the second quarter, Bighill, who has since become a two-time CFL Defensive Player of the Year and five-time all-star with the BC Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, made a big-time play to give CWU the lead.
Bighill sniffed out a Mitchell pass across the middle near the line of scrimmage, jumped, gathered in the ball and bolted 66 yards the other way to give the Wildcats a 16-14 at the 8:41 mark in the second quarter.
Aaron Best, then an offensive line coach at EWU before becoming the Eagles’ head coach in 2017, was taken aback.
“My jaw is probably still on the floor of Seahawks stadium,” Best told The Spokesman-Review in 2018. “It was one of those deals where I was like, ‘Wow, that was impressive.’ “
EWU immediately answered when Mitchell hit the speedy Jones on a 46-yard touchdown connection to give EWU a 21-16 lead it didn’t relinquish.
Jones finished the night with 235 all-purpose yards and scored three of EWU’s touchdown’s despite leaving the game early in the fourth quarter after suffering a minor concussion.
EWU led 28-18 when Jones left the game.
“He’s been carrying our offense, and he did it again tonight,” said Mitchell, who was unhappy with the Eagles’ offensive performance that night.
Mitchell hit sophomore receiver Brandon Kaufman on a scoring strike with 3:51 left to give EWU a 35-25 lead, but CWU answered with a quick score – a Robertson touchdown pass – with 2:21 remaining.
EWU appeared to put the game away before CWU’s touchdown, but Jerry Ceja’s 80-yard fumble return – which would have given EWU a 42-25 lead – was called back due to offsetting penalties.
After cutting EWU’s lead to 35-32, CWU’s’ defense forced the Eagles to punt and gave the Wildcats a chance to tie or win in the game’s final minute, beginning the drive on their 18.
After a pair of Wildcats first downs, EWU put CWU in a fourth-down situation. Nose tackle Tyler Jolley, an East Valley graduate, batted down a Robertson pass to preserve the Eagles’ win.
“All I could think about was how they had been dumping those little short passes just over my head all night,” Jolley said after the game. “So when (Robertson) starting rolling left, I just threw my hands up and prayed.”
CWU, which shocked the Eagles 21-14 in Cheney in their previous meeting in 2006, was a pest again.
The narrow loss gave CWU optimism.
The Wildcats went 8-3 in 2010, winning seven of their next eight games after the EWU game.
“If we can do this to a Division I-AA team, we should be able to destroy everyone from here on out,” linebacker Paul Wright told the Ellensburg Daily Record.
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