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10 years after the title: Colin Kaepernick, talented Nevada too much for Eastern Washington in opener

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 29, 2020

It’s the 10-year anniversary of Eastern Washington’s 2010 national championship season. We give a weekly, chronological look back at the Eagles’ program-changing title run. Here is Week 1.

A Thursday night season opener in Reno, Nevada, paired two eventual overachievers with several future NFL draft picks, including one of the game’s most controversial figures.

Eastern Washington – a Football Championship Subdivision program that was eliminated in the first round of the 2009 playoffs – took a No. 13 preseason ranking into its guarantee game at Nevada with a new quarterback, tasked with replacing the Big Sky Conference’s all-time passer, Matt Nichols.

Behind the arm and legs of budding star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Nevada, picked second in the Western Athletic Conference behind power Boise State, was well outside most Top 25 Football Bowl Subdivision preseason polls.

EWU, picked second behind Montana in its conference, went on to win the school’s first national championship four months later.

But not before suffering a 49-24 thumping against a high-powered Wolfpack team that then clipped third-ranked Boise State, win the WAC title, amass a 13-1 record and finish the season ranked No. 11 by the Associated Press.

Kaepernick completed 26 of 37 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 60 yards and two touchdowns in front of more than 16,000 fans at Mackay Stadium.

“We knew they were a good team with a good athlete like Kaepernick, and they had a few other guys who went onto the NFL,” said Greg Herd, a sophomore receiver that season. “But we thought we had a good team, too. We talked about a (national championship) run all summer.”

Two years later, Kaepernick – now a political activist who knelt during national anthems in NFL games to protest police brutality and racial inequality – helped the San Francisco 49ers reach the Super Bowl. He is no longer in the league.

He wasn’t EWU’s only headache that day.

Virgil Green, one of Nevada’s seven future NFL draft picks and now a veteran tight end on the San Diego Chargers, hauled in seven passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns, his second giving Nevada a 35-10 lead early in the third quarter.

EWU’s defense featured several experienced commodities, including J.C. Sherritt – the nation’s top FCS defensive player that season – and safety Matt Johnson, who became a fourth-round draft by the Dallas Cowboys in 2012.

Johnson said Nevada beat EWU with a lot more than Kaepernick, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound quarterback who helped his team jump to a 14-0 first-quarter lead.

“Kaepernick was a stud, but he really didn’t beat us,” Johnson said. “Their backs were solid and they had a tight end (Green) who played in the NFL for a while who was a stud.

“(But) we matched up well with them.”

Eastern had a stud of its own, though, in shifty, fleet-footed running back Taiwan Jones, one of the nation’s best running backs regardless of division.

Jones gave Nevada’s defense and special teams units problems, rushing for 145 yards on 12 carries and catching two passes for 92 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown that cut Nevada’s lead to 14-7 in the second quarter.

“He scored on that slip screen and the magic just happened,” said Herd, recently hired as the head football coach at Auburn Riverside High School. “He was dicing through guys.”

Jones declared for the NFL draft after his junior season, where he was picked in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders. He’s currently a member of the Buffalo Bills.

The Nevada game marked the EWU debut of quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a transfer from Southern Methodist who became one of the best FCS quarterbacks in the country in 2011 before winning the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy – the Walter Payton Award – in 2011.

Mitchell struggled early.

Working with a young group of receivers that included underclassmen Brandon Kaufman, Nick Edwards and Herd, Mitchell overthrew targets early before settling down, completing 19 of 35 passes for 252 yards and touchdowns.

He didn’t complete a deep pass, but helped the Eagles cut Nevada’s lead to 11 points when Darriell Beaumonte rushed for a touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 35-24.

Nevada shut out EWU in the fourth quarter, though, and scored on a pair of touchdown runs courtesy of Vai Taua and Mark Lampford, who helped the Wolfpack, totaled 214 rushing yards.

“Anytime playing up a division was a challenge, and we went in there thinking we could win,” Johnson said.

“Other than a few mistakes, we hung with them well. Their offense was very misdirection-based and that was a game plan we worked on a lot that summer.”

Jones’ postgame interview was a premonition of sorts.

“Today it didn’t go as well as we’d have liked,” Jones told The Spokesman-Review. “But we’re going to have a good team.”

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