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Blanchette: Eagles’ ‘playoff’ should pay off

Count it. Already Eastern Washington is 1-0 in the Football Championship Subdivision stepladder.

By decree of the athletic director, at least.

“It’s a playoff win,” Bill Chaves insisted after the Eagles outlasted – their specialty – Southern Utah 31-24 at Roos Court … uh, Reese Field … uh, the one with the red carpet.

“At the end of the game, that finish, that’s a playoff win – and they were playing for their playoff lives.”

That’s a lot at stake for an unheralded nonconference game against a mystery guest opponent on a wet and dreary afternoon braved by 5,357 hearties (doesn’t seem like a lot to watch the nation’s fifth-ranked team until you realize it was the biggest gate for a November football game in Cheney in six years). But there’s more of that where this came from.

It’s been a big couple of weeks for the Big Sky Conference. The conference’s Great West Annexation Program continued with the addition of Southern Utah and North Dakota next year, making it the Biggest Damned FCS Conference Ever. Montana, the de facto flagship by virtue of its football legacy and ever-full stadium, remarkably concluded that more was less and opted not to move up – if it could be called that – and join the Western Athletic Belt, or what’s left of the old WAC. For the Sky, that’s expansion by retention.

And the Eagles pulled out a neo-playoff game it seemed poised to lose – but what else is new? – on a day when FCS royalty was tripping over its robes.

Top-ranked William & Mary was upset by James Madison. No. 4 Wofford took a 43-13 pasting from third-ranked Appalachian State. Seven other Top 25 teams fell, too, but it’s only a big deal at the top. The NCAA will seed just the top five teams in its newly expanded – to 20 teams – playoff, and now the Eagles must survive only a home date against hapless Idaho State on Saturday to be one of those.

Surviving in the playoffs? That will be trickier. But then, it’s a trick the Eagles have mastered this fall.

Five of EWU’s eight victories have been by a touchdown or less. Four times the Eagles have trailed or been tied in the fourth quarter; in another, they were behind in the third. Twice they’ve held on through scoreless fourth quarters.

“The biggest thing they do is not get afraid of situations,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said. “At times, things will be going bad and you have the feeling, ‘What’s going on? Why can’t we stop them? Why can’t we get into a rhythm?’ But there’s no fear. I love the way our guys are resilient in that regard … the way we end up finding a way.”

For the better part of the afternoon Saturday, they found only rough going against T-Birds quarterback Brad Sorensen, a BYU transfer, who strafed the Eagles for 434 yards. Two Jesse Hoffman interceptions – to set up the winner and preserve it – didn’t dampen Sorensen’s reviews.

“He’s the best quarterback I’ve played against, hands down,” EWU senior defensive end Tyler Jolley sighed, “and I’m done with him.”’

But the Eagles aren’t. The T-Birds come aboard the Sky next year, losing two terrific receivers but hardly anyone else of consequence. They’ve beaten one ranked team (Cal Poly) and took two FBS programs (San Jose State and Wyoming) to the limit under former Idaho defensive coordinator Ed Lamb, who inherited a moribund program three years ago.

Turned down for Sky membership five years ago, SUU set about both athletic and academic improvements that would “make us ready this time,” according to athletic director Ken Beazer. That included taking a 60 percent scholarship program to full allotment, and added two full-time coaches.

“We’ve tried to model ourselves after Big Sky programs, and tried to change a mindset about what it takes to get there,” Beazer said. “Our board of directors voted overwhelmingly to do this – in fact, one of the comments was, ‘Let’s cross the bridge, burn it and move forward.’ ”

So life will get harder in the Bigger Sky. And for the Eagles, life will get harder in the real playoffs; the pass defense could use some shoring up, and their offensive arrhythmia needs some smoothing out.

“We’ve had times this year when we’ve been in a pretty good rhythm, but it comes and goes,” Baldwin allowed. “But I tell you what – I like the part about being 8-2.”

And now 1-0, if you’re counting.

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