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Blanchette: Season finished, but Eagles aren’t

EWU linebacker Ronnie Hamlin is charged up during second-half rally.
EWU linebacker Ronnie Hamlin is charged up during second-half rally.

For entertainment purposes only, the godfathers of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision might well regret that they don’t cast their title game by audition.

But this is tournament football. Every aria, every cameo is earned.

It is crazy. It is cruel.

Not just expert in the former but irrepressibly creative, Eastern Washington set a new playoff standard for the preposterous on their Santa-red field Saturday, only to bang head-first into a wicked bottom line:

Season over.

Even after coughing up all but three points of a five-touchdown lead over the stubborn Eagles, it was Big Sky-killer Sam Houston State which earned the return trip to the FCS championship game next month in fun-challenged Frisco, Texas, with a 45-42 escape.

The Eags? They’ll be back, too, eventually, for another try at the trophy they won in 2010 against Delaware.

How do we know this? From a brief survey of freshman quarterback Vernon Adams, who after almost a full month in mothballs was resurrected to preside over a comeback, which had the Eagles prevailed would have been the biggest in FCS playoff history. In not even 2 1/2 quarters, Adams threw for 364 yards and six touchdowns, most of them ridiculously theatric, keeping plays alive with his feet and his nerve.

And his enduring memory of the day?

“The scoreboard,” he said.

Which meant the hurt, and the fire it will stoke.

This is what’s come to be expected at Eastern: success. Not as a happy accident. Not taken for granted. Not smug. And not without even the smallest contributing element appreciated. But expected by everybody involved, and demanded of themselves.

“Winning football,” said senior receiver Greg Herd of what he’s seen hatched on his watch. “There’s no moral victory tonight. We lost the game.

“Everyone knows it, and feels it.”

But for one wild half, the feeling was sheer thrill.

The 35-0 lead the Eags spotted the visitors from Texas was mostly a case of not being able to figure out what makes Sammy run, the Bearkats having 285 of their 418 yards rushing by that point. They had just as much difficulty dealing with Adams and Brandon Kaufman after intermission, or at least once some of the hand-to-hand combat on pass routes was finally deemed to be illegal.

The turning point? Herd thought it was the three-and-out the Eastern defense put together after Sammy had the ball to start the second half.

“You could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

A couple minutes later, Adams launched a lovely, loopy pass with three rushers closing in that Herd snagged in the end zone, and the light became a beacon.

“You get that first one,” said coach Beau Baldwin, “and you just never know.”

Well, the Eagles know, and when they couldn’t get the final stop they needed, the abrupt end of what seemed to be another charmed season stung – the difference, Baldwin noted, between the playoff high wire and the juice-box reward of the bowl system.

“You don’t prepare for the end,” he said. “You prepare yourself to keep playing.”

None of them have embraced it with quite as much gusto as the outgoing senior class, who first stepped on the field at Eastern when it was named for a fellow named Woodward, when the turf was green and real, when the scoreboard sometimes was finicky about telling you the score, never mind giving you a replay. They fought their way into the playoffs in 2009 when the season was assumed to be lost to NCAA sanctions that were overturned, won a national title and developed a never-dead persona that is as mind-boggling as it is matter-of-fact.

“We don’t wear our rings around here,” Baldwin noted. “It’s bigger than that.”

But it’s that, too.

“Our goal is always that, and will be again next year,” he said. “Yeah, it’s one game at a time and it’s Big Sky first. But we’re still going to think in terms of winning the whole thing. We always will. If you’re not thinking that way, why are you doing it?”

But the perspective seems different. As he made his way from the field to the locker room after the game, Kaufman was stopped at the top of the ramp by a Sammy fan who didn’t just want to give him a fist bump and a “Good game,” but wanted to pose for a picture, too.

Kaufman complied, hiding whatever hurt he felt.

To a man, the Eagles seem to know there’s some obligation – to the incremental investments the school and their supporters have made in the program, yes, but to the game itself and to play it to the final whistle.

They lost the game. They passed the audition.

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