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Blanchette: It’s the Big Sky, not the Big Easy

Chris Powers is not panhandling for gimmes. What he and his football teammates at Eastern Washington reap, they expect must be earned.

So when do they earn a breather?

In the Big Sigh Conference? Not likely.

“The last few years, it’s always been that Montana team – they’ve won the conference like 11 years in a row,” said Powers, Eastern’s starting center. “And you’ve got Montana State and us. But every team we’ve faced this year has been phenomenal compared to the last couple of years. It’s kind of crazy.”

It didn’t get any crazier than Saturday afternoon.

On the Blood Stain in Cheney – sorry, “Inferno” is a flame-out – Eastern’s 6-foot-5 Brandon Kaufman posted up 5-6 Kyle Monson for the winning touchdown with 33 seconds left in a 28-24 thriller over Sacramento State, after the Eagles had blown a three-TD lead.

Three hours to the east, Montana cut it even closer – a touchdown with 5 seconds to play beating Northern Arizona. Another 200 miles down the road, Montana State beat eighth-place Northern Colorado by a deuce. And Weber State needed 22 fourth-quarter points and a touchdown with 21 seconds left to settle matters with Portland State.

Here in 2010, the Big Sky’s traditionally exploited seem reluctant to play their roles.

Is this parity, or perfidy?

Well, for the Eagles, it was very nearly calamity, though the finishing thrill warmed a homecoming assembly of 7,147, including one who congratulated coach Beau Baldwin with a sincere, “Awesome.”

“I guess that’s one word for it,” Baldwin noted dryly.

Got another?

“Hey, 5-1 – how about that?” he recovered. “Give me 5-1.”

That’s where the Eagles stand in the Sky, same as Montana – over which they own a victory. MSU, which beat Eastern, is a game back in the win column. The November schedule would seem to place Eastern in the driver’s seat, except the Eagles have not exactly been steady at the wheel so far.

“At times we’re really ugly,” Baldwin admitted. “We really are. But there’s no panic in us, either.”

What perplexes Baldwin at the moment is why his team – at least his offense – jogs into the locker room at halftime and doesn’t return until sometime in the middle of the fourth quarter. Only an interception by safety Jeff Minnerly and a fumble forced by David Miles kept the Hornets from getting their comeback revved up earlier than those three fourth-quarter touchdowns. But you knew it was coming. EWU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was having what he admitted was a “horrible” game and the Taiwan Jones, whose 77-yard touchdown run in the first half was several degrees north of incredible, seemed to be available only every fifth play due to a pain from a helmet hit to the back.

Even punts were problematic – Sac blocked two, one for a touchdown. That mirrored the kind of pressure the Hornets were bringing on defense.

“They bring a variety of blitzes – a plethora, pretty much,” said Powers. “They’ll put their lineman back and their linebackers up on the line. They’ll do anything, and when they saw that a few worked in the first half, I think just decided, ‘We’re going to bring everything.’ ”

Mitchell finally solved it on Eastern’s winning drive by stepping up through the pressure to buy himself some time and space, and in doing so completed a key third-down pass.

“It’s not all in my hands,” he said, “but initially I have to make a play for the play to keep going.”

And he also had a better read on the game’s flow than the superficial good half/bad half.

“It’s a misconception that we got off to a great start,” he said. “We had the easy touchdown (after an interception) and another easy touchdown (Jones’ run). We only ran seven plays the first quarter and I think 27 in the first half. You can’t look too much and say we were killing them.”

That, too, would suggest that the talent gap top to bottom in the Big Sky is closing. Baldwin thinks coaching staffs – like that of Sac’s Marshall Sperbeck, now in his fourth year – have settled in. Montana coach Robin Pflugrad sees the Sky’s metro schools, or those closest to bigger cities, finally seeing recruiting benefits there.

But parity’s one thing. Results are another.

“It’s still Eastern and the two Montanas at the top,” NAU coach Jerome Souers noted last week. “Some of us who haven’t been involved (in title races) have to do something about it. Scores are closer, but there haven’t been as many upsets as you might think, and that’s the defining factor at the end of the season.”

Maybe that’s when they’ll get a breather.

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