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John Blanchette: Eastern Washington players haven’t blocked importance of special teams magic from memories

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 1, 2018, 10:43 p.m.

Not to slide the Eagles’ greatest hits album onto the turntable yet again, but consider what might be the most forgotten defining play in Eastern Washington football history.

First quarter in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 11, 2011. Delaware on the board with a touchdown. The Blue Hens line up the short PAT putt, and Eastern’s Tyler Jolley snakes in to smother it.

All that fourth-quarter drama with Bo Levi’s voodoo and Delaware’s beef with the first-down chains notwithstanding, no play was bigger simply because of the final score: Eags 20, Hens 19.

“We win the national championship by a blocked kick,” Dylan Ledbetter noted.

He was 14 at the time. Doesn’t mean he can’t be indoctrinated in the lore.

The Eags haven’t been back to Frisco since, but they have a notion of going this season – but maybe it doesn’t get beyond that stage Saturday without Ledbetter’s sense of history. Sure, Eastern wound up wiping out Nicholls State 42-21 in the second round of the FCS playoffs and one blocked field goal does not reconcile the point spread. But it’s entirely possible the Eagles don’t get out of first gear without Ledbetter and teammate Kedrick Johnson popping the clutch.

If you’re going to score 39 straight points, somebody has to make the first touchdown.

So write this down in the dusty old book: Eastern trailing 14-3 with one snap left in the first half, having done pretty much nothing for 30 minutes. Nicholls State’s Lorran Fonseca puts a foot into a 37-yard field-goal attempt, only to have Ledbetter surge through and block it.

As the ball skitters toward the Eastern sideline, cornerback Nzuzi Webster tries to corral it and fails, much to his dismay. But Johnson proves to be the ultimate wingman and, in fact, is in better position to take the ball to the end zone 55 yards away once he scoops it into his arms.

Nicholls 14, EWU 10, game … well, not over. But irrevocably changed.

“If you don’t make the kick, it’s still 14-3 and you get the ball back to start the second half,” Nicholls State coach Tim Rebowe said. “But when it’s blocked and returned it’s 14-10, and we couldn’t get the momentum back.”

And now the Eagles have a true head of steam.

They are into the FCS quarterfinals with a home date next Saturday against UC Davis, already plowed under by 39 points at Roos Field just three weeks ago. Also on EWU’s side of the bracket is Weber State – the Nos. 2, 3 and 6 seeded teams all from the Big Sky Conference, all lined up to cannibalize one another. Seems unfortunate, if not gerrymandered.

“The seeds are sacred,” said Montana athletic director Kent Haslam, the Big Sky’s rep on the FCS committee. “Once you set the seeds, there’s no manipulating it to even out (conference representation) on the other side of the bracket.”

So it’s really a sign of respect – and, hey, nobody has to play North Dakota State until the final. Which now seems likely to include a Big Sky team for the first time since EWU’s title run.

That’s been a sore point for a league that likes to think of itself as a big wheel in the FCS world, even if that world sometimes seems like the NDSU monster truck and a lot of Matchbox cars.

“It’s important to get seeded,” Haslam said. “These three teams beat each other, but won all the other games they were supposed to win. In the Colonial, they beat up on each other – they got six teams in, but only one seed. You want to get those home games.”

But even at home, you need a game-changer. EWU coach Aaron Best was hardly surprised it came from his special teams.

“The DNA of a football team is what you do on field-goal block,” he insisted.

Really?

“When you look at a team on film, you know what a team represents when you watch their field-goal block team and their kick cover team,” Best said. “Not just when the game’s on the line, but when it’s the first kick or the second. We pride ourselves on it, teach it, grade it.”

Ledbetter, a junior defensive tackle, has blocked three attempts this season, and had another against Davis last year. This time he subbed in on fourth down and “Jay-Tee (Tiuli, the nose guard) and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this thing’ – and I was able to get my left hand up.”

Good choice.

The ring finger on Ledbetter’s right hand looks like 20 minutes to 6 – bent, broken and mashed from years of trench warfare.

“They always say when I miss it, it goes right between these two fingers,” he said, pointing the middle and pinky.

Yeah, probably not.

But it’ll sound good in the retelling, now that it’s part of the lore.


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