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Challenge brings out EWU's best

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Nobody can say Eastern Washington football is feasting on too many cupcakes while it celebrates its first FCS national championship.

Consider the Eagles' 2011 schedule:

They play their first three games on the road - at the University of Washington, South Dakota and Big Sky Conference rival Montana.

The home opener? Yeah, it's against Montana State, which whipped EWU, 30-7, last season.

In fact, the Eagles are playing only four home games in an 11-game schedule, with the other non-conference game being another road game, the tricky trip to Cal Poly.

Ask the Montana Grizzlies how much they enjoyed going there last season.

Still, the schedule doesn't draw a rise out of EWU head coach Beau Baldwin. If there was potential of that happening, the way his veteran team has handled this offseason has dispelled it.

No longer are Beau Baldwin's Eagles flying under the radar.
The Eagles are working toward returning to Frisco, Texas, where they beat Delaware for the national title this past January.

"I kind of look back and go, 'Okay, it is difficult. It's as tough as I can remember,'" Baldwin said of his team's schedule. "But I don't have to go back very far to say, 'In 2010, we opened with (the University of Nevada) Reno. And then we played a Division II school, probably one of the best in the country in Central Washington and we had to somewhat do that on the road (at Qwest Field in Seattle). And then we played Montana at home and then we went on the road to Montana State and Weber (State).

"I look at it that it's a challenge, but it can also be a great thing if you can find a way to get off to that good, solid start. You can develop a lot of confidence and you can be tested early, and it can help you for the rest of the season."

Last season taught the Eagles this notion more than any other. They began to learn what they were truly about as a team when they were only 2-2 through September and faced a difficult road game at Weber State without injured tailback Taiwan Jones. They played an excellent second half en route to a 35-24 victory, and it started an 11-game winning streak which continued through the 20-19 rally in the FCS title game.

"Who knows how the season goes if you don't get that win," said Baldwin, looking back at the Weber State game.

If EWU survives yet another difficult September stretch, it will make serious runs at the Big Sky and FCS titles again.

No longer are the Eagles flying under the radar, simply known as the team with the red field. Now they're the reigning national champs with a veteran team to boot that, oh, yes, plays on the unique turf.

EWU is bringing back 15 starters and 32 players with a combined 337 career starts. That would seem to be enough to outset the Eagles' two huge losses - Jones, the fourth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders, and linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who won the 2010 Buck Buchanan Award, which is bestowed on the FCS defensive player of the year, presented by The Sports Network and sponsored by Fathead.com.

Sophomore Mario Brown was impressive in replacing the oft-injured Jones during a national semifinal against Villanova and in the national title game. Two- year starter Zach Johnson, who was second on the team to Sherritt in tackles, has taken his spot on the strong side after playing weakside linebacker last season.

The list of returnees is impressive all around. SMU transfer Bo Levi Mitchell, who threw for 3,496 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first season as the starting quarterback, and was the Most Outstanding Performer of the FCS title game, will work behind a veteran offensive line, which is anchored by All- America center Chris Powers. He also has three big junior wide receivers in 6- foot-5 Brandon Kaufman, and Nicholas Edwards and Greg Herd, both 6-3.

Defensively, senior defensive tackle Renard Williams has NFL ability, middle linebacker Tyler Washburn is an emerging playmaker and Matt Johnson - Zach's twin brother - is one of the best safeties in the FCS. He has made 38 career starts.

The loss of the top three cornerbacks is significant, but sophomore T.J. Lee could be the best of the new group.

The special teams feature place-kicker Mike Jarrett and do-everything Darriell Beaumonte, the Big Sky's 2010 special teams player of the year

"One thing that struck me is that, after a week of winning the championship, guys were just itching to get back in the weight room," Baldwin said. "Kind of, when is winter conditioning going to start? Being excited about that. There's that part of you that was nervous a little bit, (like), 'Hey, we need two months off, man,' and take that approach. Instead they were a group that wanted to get back to work."

Training camp opens Aug. 9. The season opener at Washington is on Sept. 3.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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