Inspired by the off-season work ethic of Matt Nichols and his teammates, Eastern starts much-anticipated 2009 campaign
Eastern Washington Univ. "Eagles"
Western Oregon University "Wolves"
Saturday, Sept. 5 • 12:05 p.m. Pacific
Woodward Field • Cheney, Wash.
EWU Coach: Beau Baldwin (Central Washington
School Record: 6-5/5-3 Big Sky (2nd Season)
Career Record: 16-8 (3rd Season -- was 10-3 at CWU in 2007 and 6-5 at EWU in 2008)
2009: First Game
2008: 6-5/5-3 in Big Sky Conference (3rd)
Last Game: Eastern Washington 33, #8 Weber State 26 (Nov. 22 in Ogden, Utah)
TV: SWX (SWX Digital 6.2, Comcast 115, Time Warner 306, Charter 287)
Radio: 1510-AM in Spokane
Senior quarterback Matt Nichols set the tone back in January with his work ethic and approach to offseason conditioning. This Saturday (Sept. 5), the Eastern Washington University football team hopes to see the result of those efforts when the Eagles host Western Oregon at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
The non-conference game against the NCAA Division II Wolves begins at 12:05 p.m. Pacific time (not 2:05 p.m. as previously released). It will be televised live on digital station SWX, via the web at bigskytv.com and will also be carried live via radio in Eastern Washington on KGA 1510-AM.
The Eagles are coming off a 6-5 finish in 2008 that included a 5-3 record in the Big Sky Conference, but EWU ended the season with a three-game winning streak. Eastern returns 38 letter winners from that team, including 17 back on offense and 21 returning on defense. A total of 15 starters are returning, featuring eight on offense and seven on defense.
Western Oregon, meanwhile, was 7-4 overall a year ago after opening the season with a 31-14 loss to Portland State. The Wolves return six starters on offense and eight on defense after losing just 14 of 62 letter winners from last year's squad.
Among their top players returning are 2008 first team All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference running back Ben Kuenzi, who rushed for 751 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. Wide receiver Shaun Kauleinamoku was also a first team selection after catching 37 passes for 573 yards and eight scores. Senior quarterback Josh Riddell passes for 2,776 yards and 25 touchdowns a year ago.
Defensively, first team All-GNAC selections returning include defensive backs Andrew Jackson (86 tackles) and Caleb Singleton (54 tackles, four interceptions).
"Western Oregon is a great opponent," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, whose team is a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. "They have some really good skill players and have a great team. They are well-coached and we can't in any way get caught up in the classification difference."
Baldwin brought up a few key scores to illustrate that there is a small gap between FCS and NCAA Division II teams. In 2006, in his last year as an EWU assistant, Central Washington upset the Eagles 21-14. Last year, Eastern defeated Western Washington 52-31, but the game was tied at 31 entering the fourth quarter. Also a year ago, Central put a scare into Montana in Missoula before falling 38-35.
"It's getting to the point now the more and more you watch Division II games, you see quality all over the place," Baldwin said. "We found that out in '06 with a tough loss to Central Washington my last year here as an assistant. And you saw Central come real close to beating Montana last year. They are an opponent that is going to jacked up to play here, are physical up front and have a senior quarterback, so it's going to be a tremendous challenge for us. Last year against Western Washington we faced a senior quarterback and I think we were tied going into the fourth quarter.
Eastern is led by Nichols, a four-year starter who should break EWU's career passing and total offense records in 2009. For the second-straight year he is on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award presented by the Sports Network to the top player in the FCS.
Nichols led Eastern to nine victories as a sophomore in 2007 when he passed for 3,744 yards and 34 touchdowns, and had another 392 yards on the ground. As a junior, his numbers (in two less games) slipped to 3,293 yards and 21 touchdowns passing, and 83 yards rushing.
Nichols dropped about 20 pounds in the off-season -- some of which he initially put on to help him survive the hits he anticipated taking behind an inexperienced offensive line in 2008. More importantly than the weight he lost is the fact he's in the best shape of his career.
"He started working on his diet and working out in December, and he hasn't stopped since," said first-year head coach Beau Baldwin. "His approach to the off-season was better than any quarterback I've ever coached -- maybe any player I've coached at the college level. He's had a great focus day-in and day-out since December.
"I was impressed -- he was in shape already," Baldwin said of the start of offseason workouts in January after the holiday break. "Sometimes players come back from winter break and are a little out of shape. Instead, he continuously got in better and better shape through January and February. It showed in spring ball and it's showing up right now."
Another player in great shape and primed for an outstanding senior season is wide receiver Aaron Boyce. Boyce, an All-American in 2007 and preseason choice in both 2008 and 2009, has started 32 games -- one less than the team-leading 33 starts of Nichols. He had 63 catches last season to give him a total of 183 in his career (second-most in school history).
But for precautionary reasons, Nichols, Boyce and several other starters did not play in either preseason scrimmage. Instead, Baldwin used them to take a look at backups and focus on several battles for starting and backup positions. In any event, Baldwin knows his team is hungry for the start of the season this week as he and his coaching staff enter their second season at the helm.
"I'm definitely ready and the players are ready for an opponent," he said. "I definitely feel better about the whole group than I did at this time last year. We were new as coaches, but we've been with this group for more than a year now. We have a higher comfort level of them knowing what we expect and we knowing what to expect out of them."
Following the opener, on Sept. 12 the Eagles face their stiffest challenge when they visit California of the Pacific 10 Conference.
Game Promotions/Tickets -- Saturday's game will feature $1 hot dogs and $1 popcorn for Eagle fans. It will also be Youth Football Day, Special Olympics Day, Parks & Recreation Day, Alumni Appreciation Day, Community Day (Cheney,Spokane, Surrounding Areas) and Military Appreciation Day. Ticket information is available at http://goeags.com/tickets/ewas-ticketcentral.html or by calling 1-866-4GO-EAGS.
PDF Link to Fact Book -- The complete version of the 2009 EWU football fact book may be found at: http://goeags.com/trads/ewas-factbooks.html.
Practices -- Until school begins on Sept. 23, two-hour practices take place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. on the EWU Sports and Recreation Center practice fields. Media interviews take place after practice or 1/2 hour before the time listed.
Eagles to Watch -- A total of 12 players return who earned All-Big Sky Conference honors a year ago, including a pair of wide receivers selected to the second team last year as juniors -- Aaron Boyce (Kent, Wash. - Kentwood HS '05) and Brynsen Brown (Puyallup, Wash. - Emerald Ridge HS '05). Boyce caught 63 passes for 917 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and has 183 catches for 2,696 yards and 23 touchdowns in his career . . . Senior quarterback Matt Nichols (Cottonwood, Calif.) is one of 10 players returning who earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors after earning the league's Offensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore. A 2009 Walter Payton Award candidate, he has passed for 8,786 yards and 63 touchdowns in his career . . . Talented sophomore Taiwan Jones (Antioch, Calif.) will move to running back to help replace four departed seniors at that position. Jones missed the early part of the 2008 season with a broken fibula, but returned to start four games at cornerback for the Eagles . . . Twin brothers Matt and Zach Johnson (Tumwater, Wash. - Tumwater HS '07) return after stellar debut seasons. They combined for 179 tackles to rank 1-2 on the team, with Zach finishing with 96 and a team-high seven passes broken up, and Matt closing the year with 83 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. Both players earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades in 2008.
Eagle Starting Debuts -- Three of Eastern's starting defensive linemen were seniors in 2008, so a pair of Eagles are expected to make their starting debuts against Western Oregon.
Freshman redshirt Evan Cook is slated to take over the end position held last year by record-breaking Buck Buchanan Award winner and Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year Greg Peach. Sophomore David Miles is expected to make his starting debut at tackle, and is backed up by 2009 seven-game starter Renard Williams. Senior Jacob Kragt will make the second start of his career at the other end position and junior Tyler Jolley starts at nose guard where he has five previous starts.
The only other starting debuts expected on defense will be made by junior cornerback Jesse Hoffman and sophomore weak-side outside linebacker Bobby Gentry. Hoffman is a former running back (2006) and safety (2008) who moved to cornerback last spring. Gentry earned a starting spot after 20-game senior starter Makai Borden suffered a hamstring injury early in preseason practices.
The lone starting debuts on offense will be freshman redshirt wide receiver Nicholas Edwards, sophomore center Chris Powers and junior right guard Nikolai Myers. Sophomore tackle Gabe Jackson will make his second start after playing previously as a backup behind injured starter Brice Leahy. And sophomore Taiwan Jones, a four-game starter at cornerback in 2008, will make his starting debut as a running back.
Also making debuts will be sophomore kicker Mike Jarrett and junior punter Cameron Zuber. Jarrett was a non-lettering squad member last season, and Zuber is punting for the first time since 2005 when he was a high school senior at W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Wash.
Preseason Rankings -- In the preseason, the Eagles were honored with rankings of 17th in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Coaches poll and 18th in the Sports Network poll of sportswriters, broadcasters and sports information directors. The AGS/anygivensaturday.com poll has the Eagles 19th, with several other preseason publications ranking EWU as high as 13th (Sporting News).
The Sports Network (preseason): 1. Appalachian State; 3. Montana; 9. Weber State; 18. Eastern Washington; 30. Montana State; 36. Northern Arizona.
FCS Coaches (preseason): 1. Appalachian State; 3. Montana; 9. Weber State; 17. Eastern Washington; 37. Northern Arizona; 38. Montana State.
AGS/anygivensaturday.com (preseason): 1. Richmond; 3. Montana; 9. Weber State; 19. Eastern Washington; 25. Montana State.
Lindy's Football Preview (preseason): 1. Appalachian State; 3. Montana; 9. Weber State; 17. Eastern Washington.
The Sporting News (preseason): 1. Richmond; 5. Montana; 7. Weber State; 13. Eastern Washington; 17. Montana State; 21. Northern Arizona.
Athlon (preseason): 1. Appalachian State; 6. Montana; 7. Weber State; 25. Eastern Washington.
Phil Steele's Football (preseason): 1. Appalachian State; 4. Montana; 15. Eastern Washington; 21. Weber State.
USA Today (preseason): 1. Richmond; 3. Montana; 9. Weber State; 17. Montana State; 23. Eastern Washington.
Preseason Honors -- Quarterback Matt Nichols and wide receiver Aaron Boyce topped the list of preseason honors received by Eagle football players. Nichols is on the watch list for the Payton Award (Sports Network) and was an honorable mention All-America selection (College Sporting News). Boyce earned a pair of second team All-America honors (Sports Network, Consensus Draft Services) and joined offensive tackle Chris Thomas and linebacker Zach Johnson on the Big Sky Conference all-league team. Phil Steele Magazine selected Thomas as a first team selection on its preseason All-BSC squad, with Nichols, running back Taiwan Jones, wide receiver Brynsen Brown, tight end Nathan Overbay, strong safety Matt Johnson and injured offensive tackle Brice Leahy on the second team.
Career Records Watch -- Senior quarterback Matt Nichols will be chasing school career passing records held by the player he replaced, 2005 Walter Payton Award winner Erik Meyer (2002-05). Nichols has 8,786 yards passing, 9,376 yards of total offense and 63 touchdown passes in his career. Meyer holds school records with 10,261 passing yards (1,475 more than Nichols), 10,942 yards of total offense (1,566 more) and 84 touchdowns (21 more). Nichols also has 590 career rushing yards, trailing Meyer by just 91 yards for the school record of 681 by an Eastern quarterback. Nichols already holds the school record with 1,150 passing attempts, and is only 23 completions from the record of 721 set by Meyer. Wide receiver Aaron Boyce, already second in school history with 183 receptions, has an outside shot of catching Eric Kimble (2002-05) for the record of 253. Brynsen Brown (138) and Tony Davis (136) are also a few catches away from earning a spot on Eastern's top 10 list, and Boyce is just 17 reception yards away from moving into the No. 2 position in that category. Boyce has 2,696, Tony Brooks (1990-93) has 3,013 and Kimble holds the record with 4,140.
Injury Report -- Starting linebackers Zach Johnson and Makai Borden both missed most of Eastern's preseason practices because of injuries and will sit out this week's game. Johnson is out until mid-October after a blood clot in his leg was diagnosed following knee surgery this summer and hasn't yet dissipated completely. Borden suffered a hamstring injury in the opening days of practice, adding to ankle, foot and toe injuries he's suffered the past two seasons. In fact, Eastern is 13-4 in the last two seasons with Borden in the starting lineup and 2-5 without him in it. He may return to the lineup as early as the Cal game, but most likely the week after when EWU opens the league season at home versus Northern Colorado on Sept. 19.
Eastern was also forced to adjust along the offensive line after starting right tackle Brice Leahy was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in a non-football related accident in June.
But Eastern did have a dose of good news during preseason practices. Safety Will Edge, who suffered a dislocated left ankle on and broken fibula during a spring scrimmage on April 11, returned earlier than expected and played in EWU's second preseason scrimmage on Aug. 29.
Nichols Selected To Payton Watch List Again -- On the cusp of breaking Eastern Washington University's career records for passing and total offense, senior quarterback Matt Nichols has been selected by The Sports Network as a preseason candidate for the Walter Payton Award given to the top player in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
A 33-game starter for the Eagles, Nichols was named to the Payton Watch List for the second-straight season after earning All-America honors and Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP accolades as a sophomore in 2007. The 2005 graduate of West Valley High School in Cottonwood, Calif., earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors a year ago, and enters his senior season with 8,786 yards passing, 9,376 yards of total offense and 63 touchdown passes in his career.
Nichols passed for 3,293 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior, and his average of 306 yards of total offense per game ranked fifth in FCS. He led the Eagles to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs as a sophomore when he passed for 3,734 yards and a school-record 34 touchdowns.
A year ago, Eastern's Greg Peach won the Buck Buchanan Award presented by TSN to the top defensive player in FCS. In 2005, Eastern's Erik Meyer -- the player Nichols replaced and is chasing in the school record books -- won the Payton Award. Meyer (2002-05) holds school records with 10,261 passing yards, 10,942 yards of total offense and 84 touchdowns.
A total of 20 players have been named to the watch list, including last year's winner, quarterback Armanti Edwards from Appalachian State. Besides Nichols and Edwards, the list currently includes Weber State quarterback Cameron Higgins and Montana running back Chase Reynolds.
The watch list will be revised in October and again in November before the final ballot is announced. Voting from a panel of FCS sports information directors, writers, broadcasters and other football experts will be conducted after the regular season ends. Three finalists will be announced on Nov. 30 and will be invited to the 23rd annual Sports Network Awards banquet on Dec. 17 in Chattanooga, Tenn., the night prior to the FCS championship game. The Eddie Robinson Award (top FCS Coach) and Buck Buchanan Award (top FCS Defensive Player) will also be presented that night.
NCAA Postseason Ban Update -- To return to the FCS Playoffs this year, the Eagles will not only have to win more, but hope they eventually receive good news from the NCAA as well. Eastern appealed a postseason ban levied by the NCAA after a two-year review of activities involving the EWU football team from 2003-07 was released in February.
As part of the appeal process, Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves, EWU President Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo and other administrators met with the appeals committee in Indianapolis, Ind., on Aug. 17. No timetable for a decision on the appeal has been provided by the NCAA.
Whether or not the appeal is denied, head coach Beau Baldwin has said since February that the Eagles are taking the approach that the postseason ban won't be a penalty unless Eastern takes care of business on the field in the 2009 season.
More Eagle Football Links and Headlines --
EWU Football Web Page - http://goeags.com/sports/m-footbl/index
Big Sky Conference Football - http://www.bigskyconf.com/sport.asp?path=football&tab=mens
Spokane Spokesman-Review EWU Football Page - http://www.spokesman.com/sections/eagles/
The Sports Network (FCS Football) - http://www.sportsnetwork.com/merge/tsnform.aspx?c=sportsnetwork&page=cfoot2/indexpic.htm
NCAA FCS Football - http://www.ncaafootball.com/index.php?s=&url_channel_id=36&change_well_id=1
NCAA Statistics - http://web1.ncaa.org/mfb/mainpage.jsp?year=2009
College Sporting News - http://www.championshipsubdivisionnews.com/index.php?blog=5
RECENT EWU FOOTBALL HEADLINES
August 29, 2009 - Eagle Backups Again Take Center Stage in Final Scrimmage
August 27, 2009 - Nationally-Ranked Eagles Scrimmage Saturday
August 22, 2009 - No Winners, No Losers in EWU's Opening Scrimmage
August 21, 2009 - Newcomers Catching Baldwin's Eye
August 20, 2009 - WSU Quarterback J.T. Levenseller Transfers to Eastern
August 19, 2009 - Thomas Nominated for ‘Good Works' Team
August 17, 2009 - Baldwin Impressed Thus Far With Tempo and Fitness
BEAU BALDWIN COMMENTS
On 2009 Schedule -- "Cal is obviously a great football team and a tremendous challenge for us, but the rest of our schedule is a good fit for us. Our focus needs to be on our first game on Sept. 5, and then we'll worry about the next one. It's natural to look at your entire schedule to see what you have. It's only a great schedule if you take care of business each week, but we're excited about it."
On Playing Portland State in Seattle at Qwest Field -- "I think it's great for the program and for the many student-athletes we have who come from that area. Even if they aren't from that area, it's a great opportunity to play in that environment and in that stadium. It's nice to be connected to the West side, and we're hoping there will be a lot of fans at that ballgame that may not get over to Cheney to see a football game. Maybe that can be a way for fans to be more involved and excited with our program. It's a great opportunity for everybody involved and we're excited about it."
On Looking Good on Paper With 38 Letter Winners and 15 Starters Back -- "I've seen years where on paper you're set-up to achieve certain things and you don't. And I've seen years where you are aren't expected to do much and you do. It comes down to whether the coaches and players are willing to do all the things to put us in a position to have a successful season. In my opinion, it's going to come down to the little things."
On Resiliency of Players in Wake of NCAA Penalties -- "I've been extremely impressed with how resilient our players are -- they have a tough mindset to them. A lot was thrown their way, and people can say what they want on whether or not it was fair. The bottom line is that as a group, all of our players are going in the same direction."
On Quarterback Matt Nichols in the Off-Season -- "In my opinion, he's had the best winter that I've seen him have. He's been working hard in the weight room and in speed and agility drills to help change his body. This is the best winter I've seen out of him and one of best I've ever seen out of a quarterback."
Scrimmage #2 -- Even the playing field was held out for precautionary reasons.
Backups again saw the majority of action as the Eastern Washington University football team concluded its second week of preseason practices Aug. 29 with a 59-play scrimmage at the EWU Sports and Recreation Center practice fields. It was originally going to take place at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash., but overnight rain caused coaches to decide to use the practice fields instead of risking damage to the stadium's grass surface.
"We wanted our younger players, including our quarterbacks, to get game-like experience," said Eagle head coach Beau Baldwin, echoing his comments from Eastern's first scrimmage a week ago. "And we definitely accomplished that -- and there is still some competition out there. We'll go back and evaluate the video to come up with our depth chart for this week and eventually our travel squad for the next week."
Baldwin held out about five starters on each side of the ball, most for precautionary reasons and not as much injury-related. The lone exception is at linebacker, where two of the three starters are battling injuries that will most likely keep both out of EWU's opener.
"Scrimmages don't always tell the whole tale because we are holding some players out," explained Baldwin. "I won't always hold out starters, but in this situation we're holding out starters who have played a lot of football. If they were starters coming out of spring without a lot of games, it probably wouldn't be like that. We want to be smart about what we are doing with them, so sometimes our scrimmages haven't been as good as our entire camp has gone.
"As long as we're healthy coming out of camp, I feel better than if anybody got hurt in a scrimmage situation," he added.
Eastern's offensive squads, featuring backup quarterbacks Jeff Minnerly and Scott Burgett, finished with 187 yards of total offense. Minnerly completed 7-of-13 passes for 41 yards, and also had 21 yards on four rushes. The 2008 graduate of Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash., had a 2-yard scoring run that was set-up by a 28-yard pass to freshman redshirt Nicholas Edwards.
Burgett was 2-of-7 for 35 yards, and had a pass intercepted by senior cornerback Brett Igbinoba, a local favorite who graduated in 2005 from Cheney (Wash.) High School. Burgett had a 15-yard touchdown pass to senior Brynsen Brown.
"Both Jeff and Scott were able to operate better and move the chains, and we were less sloppy in some areas," said Baldwin of the battle for the backup position. "I was definitely impressed with that side of the ball."
Four-year senior starter Matt Nichols was among the starters who did not play in either scrimmage.
Reserve running back Chase King led Eastern on the ground with 27 rushing yards on eight carries. Not including 25 yards of losses from a sack by Levi Reynolds and three poor center snaps in shotgun formation, the offense rushed for a total of 106 yards.
Eight players caught passes, including three for 12 yards by King. Running back Darriell Beaumonte added three catches for seven yards and 16 rushing yards on five carries.
Freshman redshirt linebacker Tyler Washburn led the defense with five tackles, and should see significant action this week as a backup at both inside linebacker positions. The defense also had four passes broken up and a pair of quarterback hurries.
"We're battling some injuries, especially at the linebacker position, but guys are stepping up," said Baldwin. "As a whole, we are definitely tackling better and assignment-wise we are in better position at the snap of the ball and post-snap than we were at this time of the year last year. I don't think we are as susceptible to big plays -- our players know what they are doing and are a year older in this system. They are putting themselves in position to make plays and are finishing with great tackles."
The defense allowed just 3.2 yards per play, with a long of 28 yards. Besides the two touchdowns -- one in a red zone drill -- the offense also scored on field goals of 20 and 35 yards by starting kicker Mike Jarrett. Minnerly's scoring drive was a seven-play, 65-yard drive, and another he directed was a 10-play, 22-yard drive that ended with one of Jarrett's field goals.
"The defense is making it tough on an offense," said Baldwin. "If you have drives that take 10 or 12 plays, it's hard to score a lot of points."
Scrimmage #1 -- Eastern Washington University head football coach Beau Baldwin wasn't in search for a win Saturday (Aug. 22).
The second-year head coach rested most of his veteran starters to get a good look at backups as the Eagles concluded their first week of preseason practices with a 54-play intra-squad scrimmage at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Wash.
"We're not trying to win two scrimmages here," he said. "We want to get better and we don't want to be sloppy, but at the same time we're not concerned about winning a scrimmage. What we do want are our players to execute better than we did today."
Eastern's offense had 203 yards of total offense, but aside from a 51-yard pass play from freshman redshirt quarterback Jeff Minnerly to senior tight end Nate Overbay, the defense dominated much of the scrimmage. Take away that play and the defense allowed just 2.9 yards per play, surrendering a total of just 75 rushing yards (on 28 carries) and 128 passing yards (on 26 plays) in the scrimmage.
Sophomore linebacker Bobby Gentry had two interceptions, including one he returned 55 yards for the only touchdown of the day. The long pass play led to a 31-yard field goal by the offense, but otherwise, the offense struggled with a false-start penalty, two fumbles on snap exchanges and other unforced errors.
"In my opinion, we were sloppy on offense but our defense was really sound," said Baldwin. "They gave up the one big play to Overbay down the middle, but overall the defense played really well.
"I'm not going to get caught up with how many yards we gained," he added. "But more than anything I was displeased with our unforced errors. That's going to be a big point of emphasis during the week. Some of our younger players got more reps and were thrown into a game situation when the coaches are on the sideline, and we made more errors that weren't really created by the other side of the ball."
Among the players who did not play was senior four-year starting quarterback Matt Nichols. A half-dozen offense starters did not play, as well as four projected starters on defense.
"Most of the No. 1's who had time off were players who have played a lot of football for us," explained Baldwin. "They are getting reps all week in practice and they've been in the fire enough."
Thus, Baldwin got a good look at the two quarterbacks battling for the backup job -- Minnerly and fellow freshman redshirt Scott Burgett -- as well as his first looks at Bakersfield College transfer Nick Gauthier and true freshman Anthony Vitto.
Minnerly, a 2008 graduate of Ferris High School, completed 2-of-5 passes for 59 yards and had two rushes for nine yards. Burgett was 2-of-6 for nine yards, Gauthier was 6-of-10 for 52 yards and two interceptions, and Vitto was 1-of-5 for eight yards. A sixth quarterback -- Washington State University transfer J.T. Levenseller -- did not play after practicing with Eastern for the first time on Thursday.
Eastern's defense was given the green light to actually hit the quarterback, something the Eagles rarely do for injury purposes. Sophomore David Miles recorded the lone sack, but the defense also had five hurries with two of them recorded by freshman redshirt linebacker Rusty Haehl.
"To really judge a quarterback, sometimes they have to face live bullets," said Baldwin. "We have a few of them competing for spots, so to see them in live situations gives you an idea of exactly where they are.
"On the other side of things, it can be hard on the defense if they have to avoid the quarterback, avoid the quarterback, avoid the quarterback throughout the spring and fall camp," he continued. "Then in the first game all of the sudden it's live. So it benefits the defense to truly get after it and not feel like they have to stay off the quarterback. Yes, it's running a little bit of risk, but every other player on the field gets tackled."
With its top two running backs sitting out (Tyler Hart and Taiwan Jones), Darriell Beaumonte led Eastern on the ground with 25 yards on nine carries. Chase King added 23 yards on six carries with a team-high three receptions for 18 yards.
Freshman redshirt linebacker Tyler Washburn led the defense with five tackles, and senior cornerback Brett Igbinoba, a 2005 graduate of Cheney (Wash.) High School, had four. Gentry and Haehl also had a pair of tackles, and Washburn added a fumble recovery.
2009 SEASON OUTLOOK
Last November, the wins finally caught up with the improvement the Eastern Washington University football team made during the 2008 season.
For what they accomplished in the final half of that year, the Eagles are hoping for a carryover effect for the 2009 season to improve upon last year's 6-5 finish that included a 5-3 record in the Big Sky Conference.
The Eagles return 38 letter winners from last year's team that ended the season with a three-game winning streak, including 17 back on offense and 21 returning on defense. A total of 15 starters are returning, featuring eight on offense and seven on defense.
To return to the FCS Playoffs this year, the Eagles will not only have to win more, but hope they eventually receive good news from the NCAA as well. Eastern appealed a postseason ban levied by the NCAA after a two-year review of activities involving the EWU football team from 2003-07 was released in February. The NCAA investigated a series of secondary rule violations, which, taken in total, led to a major infractions case. The university originally self-reported the violations to the NCAA in February 2007.
Whether or not the appeal is denied, the Eagles are taking the approach that the postseason ban won't be a penalty unless Eastern takes care of business on the field.
"When the announcement was made initially, it was hard," explained Baldwin. "But it was amazing how resilient and how fast they came back from that. They said, ‘we don't control that so we're going to get after it and work hard.'"
"There's a little chip on their shoulder, but to me, it has taken nothing away from their work ethic. A lot of that comes from great leaders. We have some players in place - seniors especially - who have done a great job of leading everybody through it. It's not what we planned for or expected, but the schedule is ahead of us so let's battle that. All we control is how well we play each day. We are guaranteed 11 games and we're going to do everything we can to prepare for that between now and Sept. 5."
In all, Baldwin has 25 players returning with starting experience and a total of 281 starts between them. That list is led by a pair of seniors who were highly-honored in 2007 - quarterback Matt Nichols and wide receiver Aaron Boyce.
Nichols, who was Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP after throwing for a school-record 34 touchdowns in 2007, has started 33 games in his career. He has passed for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons after getting his feet wet as a freshman in 2006.
Boyce, an All-American in 2007, has started 32 games. He had 63 catches last season to give him a total of 183 in his career (second-most in school history).
In 2008, Boyce had to settle for second team All-Big Sky honors and Nichols earned honorable mention. A total of 12 Eastern players who earned All-Big Sky honors last year - including second team wide receiver Brynsen Brown - are back and provide a base of talent for the Eagles. Brown caught 50 passes and had four touchdowns a year ago.
Returning All-Big Sky honorable mention selections on offense included senior wide receiver Tony Davis, senior tight end Nathan Overbay and senior offensive tackle Chris Thomas. Returning honorable mentions on defense are senior linebacker Makai Borden, junior outside linebacker J.C. Sherritt and a pair of sophomore twins - strong safety Matt Johnson and outside linebacker Zach Johnson. Another All-Big Sky player returning is senior special teams standout Nicholas Ramos.
Another honorable mention pick not able to play this season is junior offensive tackle Brice Leahy. He injured his right leg (not football-related) and will have to redshirt the 2009 season.
Among the 19 letter winners lost were 18 seniors who combined for 232 starts in their careers. All but seven of those seniors were four-year letter winners, including three starting defensive linemen. One of those, All-America defensive end Greg Peach, won the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top player in FCS and was also the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
The offense has something to prove in 2009, and the leader of that effort is Nichols. He led Eastern to nine victories as a sophomore in 2007 when he passed for 3,744 yards and 34 touchdowns, and had another 392 yards on the ground. As a junior, his numbers (in two less games) slipped to 3,293 yards and 21 touchdowns passing, and 83 yards rushing.
"I've been extremely impressed with his approach to his senior season, especially with the unfortunate news of the postseason ban," said Baldwin. "One of the comments he's made is, ‘it's only a penalty if we make it a penalty. They could have slapped us with that last year and it wouldn't have mattered, right?' That's the right approach, and we have to earn the right for that to really be a penalty. He's going out there with the idea that we are going to make that a penalty if the appeal does not go our way."
Nichols will have a seasoned and experienced wide receiver unit returning, headlined by Boyce, Brown and Davis, who was Eastern's second-leading receiver a year ago with 53 catches and three scores. That trio has combined for 456 catches, 6,329 yards and 43 touchdowns in 98 games worth of experience (80 starts).
Other returning letter winners at wide receiver include Ramos and Ashton Gant. Ramos finished with eight catches for 88 yards, and Gant added three catches.
At tight end, Overbay returns after catching 28 passes for 364 yards and a pair of scores. Also back is junior Matt Martin, who added 11 catches for 118 yards.
The offensive line was young and inexperienced in 2008, and actually gave up fewer sacks (18) than it did the previous season (25). But the Eagles generated only 98.5 yards per game on the ground - nearly 70 less per game than the year before. It was the lowest average per game for the Eagles since 1987 when Eastern played the first of what is now 22 seasons as a member of the Big Sky Conference.
The line is led by a pair of honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference selections in senior Chris Thomas (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) and junior Brice Leahy (6-7, 295), although Leahy will have to redshirt in 2009 because of a non football-related injury. The other returning starter is senior Ryan Forney (6-3, 295), but Eastern also returns three other letter winners in Gabriel Jackson (6-4, 275), John Rice (6-7, 295) and Nikolai Myers (6-4, 275).
Eastern lost four senior running backs, but have three letter winners returning who are capable of filling that void. Tyler Hart was working his way up the depth chart and had 84 yards rushing with two touchdowns in 2008 before his season was ended with a broken scapula.
Also back - but in a different position - is speedster Taiwan Jones. He had 54 tackles and four passes broken up in seven games as a cornerback in 2008 after missing the first half of the season with a broken fibula.
But Jones was a talented running back in high school, and his skill with the ball led the coaches to give him some repetitions at wide receiver for the Eagles late last fall. He averaged 9.3 yards per carry as a senior in high school as he finished with a total of 1,466 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns to earn San Francisco Chronicle All-Metro honors.
Jones had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown for the Eagles last season against Northern Colorado, which further cemented the need to get the ball in his hands as a running back.
"Taiwan is obviously a dynamic athlete, and he wasn't able to show that a lot last year," explained Baldwin. "But we saw glimpses of it, like his kickoff return against Northern Colorado. He's a special player with the ball in his hands."
The third returning letter winner is tailback/fullback Darriell Beaumonte, who rushed for 25 yards and had three tackles on special teams.
"Tyler Hart is a tremendous running back, and had he not been injured, he could have had a very, very successful freshman season," Baldwin said of the running back corp. "We also have some younger players who can step-in. We're excited about that group as a whole, and Taiwan just adds an extra piece to that group that already had the potential of being very strong. They still have a lot to prove, but we're excited about the players that are there."
Like the offense, Eastern's defense was superb in the last half of the season under first-year defensive coordinator John Graham. After giving up 623 passing yards in a 47-36 loss at Portland State, the Eagles held five-straight opponents from Oct. 11 to Nov. 15 to 19 points or fewer. That was something that EWU has never done since becoming a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1984. The Eagles closed the year by limiting Weber State's high-powered offense to 26 points in a 33-26 Eagle victory.
"A lot of that was just finding out what our identity was on defense, understanding our philosophies and the players having a better idea of how they were being coached," said Baldwin. "It was night and day when comparing the first five games with the last six. We're excited about carrying that over."
The defensive line last season featured a trio of senior All-Big Sky performers, but the cupboard is certainly not bare for Eastern's defense.
Sophomore Renard Williams (6-2, 300) returns as a starter after finishing his debut season with 27 tackles, two sacks and seven total tackles for loss. Junior Tyler Jolley (6-3, 285) started four games and finished the year with 27 tackles with a sack and three passes batted down in nine games played.
Other returning letter winners include senior Jacob Kragt (6-3, 235), sophomore David Miles (6-4, 255) and senior Josh Jacobson (6-1, 280).
"We're excited about the group we have coming in," said Baldwin. "It's a lot like last year when we lost a lot of offensive linemen. We're excited to see the young defensive linemen and we're excited about some of the older players who haven't been able to play quite as much and now have that opportunity. We're excited to see how hard they work and how bad they want playing time. That group wants to come in and prove something."
Six starters return at linebacker and the secondary, including three linebackers who all earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors in 2008. Zach Johnson leads the returning backers with 96 tackles and a team-leading seven passes broken up in 2008, with injuries sidelining Sherritt (64 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss, one interception) and Borden (43 tackles) at various times during the season. Borden has started 20 games, with Eastern owning a 13-4 record the past two seasons with him in the starting lineup.
Other returning letter winners at linebacker include senior Kyle Wilkins, junior Jason Harris and sophomore Bobby Gentry. Wilkins finished the 2008 season with 46 tackles and a sack as he helped fill the void when injuries sidelined a trio of linebackers at the same time.
In the secondary, 24-game starting free safety Kevin Hatch returns for his senior season. He had 60 tackles for the season and an interception he returned 73 yards for a touchdown in Eastern's season-ending win over Big Sky champion Weber State.
Matt Johnson and senior cornerback Lonnie Hosley are the other two starters returning, with Johnson finishing his freshman season with 83 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. Hosley started EWU's first five games and finished with 13 tackles and six passes broken up before a foot injury ended his season.
Six other letter winners return in the secondary, including seniors Brett Igbinoba and J.T. Leggin, who both moved to cornerback after playing as a wide receivers in 2008. The others are juniors John Roberts, Jesse Hoffman, Dante Calcote, Will Edge and Ethen Robinson.
"Another position where some young players are going to have to step-up is defensive back," said Baldwin. "We don't have a large number of defensive backs, but it was a position we recruited heavily. We signed a number of defensive backs, so there could be young players in the lineup, but a lot of that depends on where the veteran players are. We're hoping that's a very competitive position during fall camp and that some players who haven't played much in prior years are able to step-up for us."
Eastern Washington University's punter, kicker and long snapper were all seniors in 2008, and replacing them will fall on the shoulders of non-lettering squad members and newcomers.
"Those positions are going to be extremely competitive," said head coach Beau Baldwin. "We have players on the roster right now who are competing for those positions, plus we also recruited to those areas. We'll evaluate it and determine what direction we need to go."
On Eastern's pre-season depth chart, sophomore squad member Mike Jarrett is listed as the starter after winning the job in preseason practices.
Listed as the starting punter on the depth chart after preseason practices is Cameron Zuber, a 2006 graduate of W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Wash. Senior quarterback Matt Nichols has also punted, with a 37.6 average in seven career punts. And true freshman Cameron Homan from Eatonville (Wash.) High School is also available if needed.
Junior Tyler Jolley is expected to handle long snapping chores, with freshman redshirt Jake Potter also listed on the depth chart.
Eastern does return some of the league's premier kick returners in Ramos, Jones and Davis. Ramos returned 17 kickoffs for a 23.2 average a year ago, and Jones averaged 36.3 in just seven returns with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown versus Northern Colorado. Davis had a 10.3 average in 19 punt returns in 2008, and in his career he has returned 28 punts for a 9.9 average and a touchdown.
Eastern's return and return coverage units will also have some special teams tradition to continue in 2009.
In the last 13 seasons, Eastern has returned 24 total kicks for touchdowns while allowing just 10. Eastern has not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in the last nine-plus years (485 total returns). In the past 13 seasons (675 returns from 1996-2008), EWU has allowed just two kickoff returns for touchdowns (both in 1999).
In that same 13-year time frame, the Eagles have returned 12 punts for scores while allowing eight.
WSU Quarterback J.T. Levenseller Transfers to Eastern -- Sophomore quarterback J.T. Levenseller has transferred from Washington State University to Eastern Washington University and will play football for the Eagles, Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin announced Aug. 20.
Baldwin said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Levenseller has been admitted and enrolled at EWU after receiving his official release to transfer from WSU where he played for former Eastern head coach Paul Wulff. The 2007 graduate of Pullman (Wash.) High School is eligible to play this season, and has three years of eligibility plus a redshirt season remaining.
Baldwin said Levenseller would become Eastern's sixth quarterback in the program, and later said he will probably redshirt the 2009 season.
As a true freshman at WSU last season, Levenseller saw action in four games and completed 17-of-34 passes for 134 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns.
Levenseller will be among familiar company at EWU as he and two current Eagles helped lead Pullman to the State 2A football title in fall 2005. Eagle linebacker J.C. Sherritt ('06), wide receiver Ashton Gant ('06) and Levenseller led Pullman to a perfect 14-0 record that season. Former Eagle Marcus Walker helped Pullman finish 11-3 and advance to the 2A title game in 2003. Walker, whose father also coached at WSU, graduated in 2004 from Pullman.
Eagles Release Schedule With a Seattle Twist -- The Eastern Washington University football team will play five home games in the 2009 season, and one of them will take place across the Cascade Mountains on Halloween Day.
The Eagles will host Portland State on Oct. 31 in a Big Sky Conference game that begins at 1 p.m. at Qwest Field in Seattle. It's believed to be the first time in Eastern's 100-year football history that it has played a game in Seattle. The Eagles will play their first game in the Puget Sound area since Oct. 30, 1982, when Eastern won at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Eastern will also play home games against Western Oregon (Sept. 5), Northern Colorado (Sept. 19), Weber State (Oct. 10) and Montana State (Oct. 24) at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
There are nearly 11,000 Eastern alumni who reside in the Puget Sound area in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. More than 16,000 reside west of the Cascade Mountains. Among current Eastern students, nearly 1,500 are from King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, and a total of nearly 2,500 are from cities west of the Cascade Mountains.
"We are excited to be able to bring Eagle football to Seattle where we have a tremendous alumni base," said Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves. "The game will also afford our team the opportunity to play in an NFL stadium."
Eastern Appeals Football Postseason Ban -- Eastern Washington University officially submitted its appeal in March to the 2009 postseason ban imposed on the EWU football team by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). As part of the appeal process, Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves, EWU President Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo and other administrators met with the appeals committee in Indianapolis, Ind., on Aug. 17. No timetable for a decision on the appeal has been provided by the NCAA
Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves said Eastern is appealing just the postseason ban and not the other penalties -- most of those were self-imposed previously -- that were released by the NCAA on Feb. 11. The NCAA released its findings that day from a two-year review of activities involving the EWU football team from 2003-07.
The NCAA looked into a series of secondary rule violations, which, taken in total, led to a major infractions case. The university originally self-reported the violations to the NCAA in February 2007.
In its report, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions accepted self-imposed measures the university already implemented. Those measures began at the start of the current academic year and will be continually improved and assessed. In addition, the NCAA levied a penalty on the football team which prohibits postseason play during the 2009 football season and placed EWU on three years of probation, from 2009-2012. During the probationary period, EWU will be required to file additional compliance reports with the NCAA.
After the arrival of EWU President Rodolfo Arévalo and Chaves, who came to Eastern in September of 2007, several new monitoring systems and resources for coaches were put in place to reflect Eastern's commitment to properly-managed athletic programs. At the time of the violations, many of those resources were not in place, including checks and balances that may have helped avoid the violations from occurring.
Eagles Return 25 Players With Starting Experience -- A total of 25 players with starting experience are expected to return for the 2009 season. Here are the current number of career starts by Eastern players currently on the 2009 roster:
Defense (108 starts by 12 players) -- Kevin Hatch 24, Makai Borden 20, Lonnie Hosley 13, Matt Johnson 11, Zach Johnson 11, J.C. Sherritt 8, Renard Williams 7, Tyler Jolley 5, Josh Jacobson 5, Kyle Wilkins 2, Jacob Kragt 1, Will Edge 1.
Offense (173 starts by 13 players) -- Matt Nichols 33, Aaron Boyce 32, Brynsen Brown 29, Tony Davis 19, Chris Thomas 18, Nathan Overbay 11, Brice Leahy 11, Ryan Forney 11, Taiwan Jones 4 (includes four on defense in 2008), Matt Martin 2, Nicholas Ramos 1, Ashton Gant 1, Gabriel Jackson 1.
Twin Stat Lines Commonplace for Johnson Twins -- Since the first game of their careers against Texas Tech in August, twin brothers Zach Johnson and Matt Johnson produced some incredible defensive numbers as redshirt freshmen in 2008.
They combined for 22 tackles in EWU's 28-13 win over Northern Arizona on Nov. 15 and 27 a week earlier in a 31-16 victory over Northern Colorado. Versus NAU, Zach had 12 stops and Matt had nine, with each breaking up a pass. Versus UNC, Zach had 15 tackles and a key interception in the third quarter while Matt finished with 12 tackles.
"There was no question Zach had a huge pick against Northern Colorado," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin of the 2006 graduates of Tumwater, Wash., High School. "He did a great job and is a great player. Both of the Johnson twins are great players. At different times they were a little banged up because they played a lot of snaps, but those guys kept coming to play."
Both had impressive collegiate debuts in Eastern's 49-24 loss at Texas Tech on Aug. 30. With Matt starting at strong safety and Zach at strong-side inside linebacker, the Johnson brothers finished with a combined 18 tackles, including eight tackles and three passes broken up by Zach. Matt had a team-high 10 tackles and a game-changing interception in the second quarter. The Eagles trailed 21-0 when Matt intercepted a pass and returned it 47 yards to the TTU 7-yard line. Two plays later, Alexis Alexander scored from one yard out to give EWU its first score.
"They are great players and have bought right in," said Baldwin after the Texas Tech game. "They're coachable, they can run, they can tackle -- they have all the tools to be great defensive players in this league. They left it on the field and went hard. There was no question that a lot of young players stepped up against Texas Tech."
They finished the season combining for 179 tackles to rank 1-2 on the team. Zach, whose 96 tackles ranks 20th in school history, was third in the Big Sky (8.7 per game) and 47th nationally. Matt had 83 total tackles and was eighth in the league (7.6). Zach also had seven passes broken up and ranked eighth in the league in tackles for loss (0.95 per game). Matt had four interceptions to rank 47th in FCS and sixth in the league (0.36 per game).
Nichols Has Six 300-Yard Passing Games -- Senior quarterback Matt Nichols had six 300-yard passing games in 2008, giving him a total of 12 in his 35-game career thus far. He had at least 300 yards of total offense in seven games in 2008 (14 in his career), including a season-ending 313-yard effort against Weber State (242 passing, 71 rushing).
He also had a 346-yard passing performance against Northern Arizona (11/15/08) and had 418 against Portland State (10/4/08) to rank as the third-best in his career and 10th-best in school history. A week before the PSU game, he had 382 and five touchdowns against Idaho State (9/27/08) as he earned Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.
On Eastern's single season passing lists, Nichols finished the 2008 season with the second-most attempts (451), completions (3,293) and average passing yards per game (299.4); the fifth-most passing yards (3,293); the ninth-most touchdown passes (21); and the fifth-most total offensive yards (3,376).
On EWU's career passing lists, Nichols ranks in the top three in all categories, including second in total offense (9,376) as he passed Mark Tenneson (7,428 from 1989-92) versus Portland State. Nichols is now also second in passing yards (8,786), surpassing Tenneson's mark of 7,492 versus Montana State. The record holder for both passing yards and total offense is 2005 Payton Award winner Erik Meyer (2002-05) with 10,261 passing yards and 10,942 yards of total offense. Meyer is the player Nichols replaced in 2006 as Eastern's starting quarterback.
Nichols now owns the school record with 1,150 career pass attempts, and also ranks fifth in efficiency rating (136.0), second in touchdown passes (63, ranking only behind the 84 of Meyer), second in completions (698) and third in interceptions (40).
Below is a complete list of his 300-yard outings:
300-Yard Passing Games for Nichols (total of 12)
451 - 37x59, 2td - Montana - 10/6/07 (#3 in school history)
434 - 34x44, 2td - McNeese State - 11/24/07 (#6 in school history)
418 - 34x55, 2td - Portland State - 10/4/08 (#10 in school history)
382 - 26x40, 5td - Idaho State - 9/27/08 (#18 in school history)
363 - 29x43, 1td - Sacramento State - 11/1/08 (#27 in school history)
363 - 19x30, 2td - Portland State - 9/29/07 (#27 in school history)
346 - 25x42, 2td - Northern Arizona - 11/15/08 (#37 in school history)
335 - 36x61, 1td - Texas Tech - 8/30/08 (#42 in school history)
329 - 21x42, 1td - Sacramento State - 9/30/06
328 - 20x29, 3td - Sacramento State - 10/27/07
316 - 17x22, 5td - Northern Arizona - 11/10/07
303 - 32x51, 1td - Colorado - 9/6/08
300-Yard Total Offense Games for Nichols (total of 14)
478 - 451 passing, 27 rushing - Montana - 10/6/07
459 - 434 passing. 25 rushing - McNeese State - 11/24/07
435 - 418 passing, 17 rushing - Portland State - 10/4/08
376 - 382 passing, -6 rushing - Idaho State - 9/27/08
375 - 426 passing, 29 rushing - Northern Arizona - 11/15/08
370 - 363 passing, 7 rushing - Portland State - 9/29/07
359 - 256 passing, 103 rushing - Weber State - 11/17/07
359 - 329 passing, 30 rushing - Sacramento State - 9/30/06
364 - 316 passing, 48 rushing - Northern Arizona - 11/10/07
355 - 328 passing, 27 rushing - Sacramento State - 10/27/07
322 - 335 passing, -13 rushing - Texas Tech - 8/30/08
320 - 363 passing, -43 rushing - Sacramento State - 11/1/08
314 - 303 passing, 11 rushing - Colorado - 9/6/08
313 - 242 passing, 71 rushing - Weber State - 11/22/08
Wide Receiver Trio Ahead of Previous Quartet -- Eastern's receiving corps in 2009 includes three seniors - Tony Davis, Brynsen Brown and Aaron Boyce - who have started since they were freshmen in 2006. In their careers, that trio has already combined for 456 catches for 6,329 yards and 43 touchdowns in 98 games worth of experience (80 starts). In 2008, they combined for 166 passes for 2,229 yards and 17 touchdowns. They combined for 118 catches for 1,539 yards and eight touchdowns as redshirt freshmen in 2006, then combined for 172 catches for 2,561 yards and 18 scores in 13 games in 2007.
In 2008, Boyce equaled his 2007 performance with 10 touchdown catches to rank eighth in school history, and his 63 catches also rank eighth. He has already moved onto EWU's career lists, ranking second in catches (183), fourth in touchdown catches (23) and third in receiving yards (2,696). Brown is 12th in receptions (137) and Davis is 14th (136).
The only player ahead of Boyce on the career catches list is Eric Kimble (253 from 2002-05). Interestingly, all of Boyce's touchdown catches have come from Matt Nichols. Of the 43 total touchdowns Boyce, Brown and Davis have caught, all but two of them have come from Nichols (Brown and Davis each caught a TD pass from Chris Peerboom in 2006).
That trio is a reminder of a recent quartet of players that began playing with quarterback Erik Meyer in 2002. Eric Kimble, Raul Vijil, Richmond Sanders and Craig McIntyre had career totals of 503 catches for 7,858 yards and 74 touchdowns in 156 games worth of experience (74 starts). In 2005, Meyer and his teammates won their second-straight Big Sky Conference title and appeared in the playoffs for the second-straight season. Meyer would go on to win the Walter Payton Award in 2005 as the top player in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
100-Yard Receiving Games for Aaron Boyce
232 (*17 catches, 1 TD) - Montana - 10/6/07 (#2 in school history)
186 (9 catches, 2 TD) - Sacramento State - 10/27/07 (#10 in school history)
181 (#13 catches, 1 TD) - Portland State - 10/4/08 (#14 in school history)
157 (5 catches, 0 TD) - Northern Arizona - 10/15/08
135 (9 catches, 3 TD) - Idaho State - 9/27/08
135 (9 catches, 1 TD) - Brigham Young - 10/20/07
126 (5 catches, 0 TD) - Montana State - 10/13/07
119 (6 catches, 1 TD) - Portland State - 9/29/07
108 (6 catches, 2 TD) - Weber State - 11/22/08
107 (9 catches, 0 TD) - UC Davis - 9/15/07
*School record. #Second in school history.
100-Yard Receiving Games for Tony Davis
150 (6 catches, 0 TD) - Idaho State - 9/22/07
131 (8 catches, 1 TD) - McNeese State - 11/24/07
126 (6 catches, 1 TD) - Western Washington - 9/20/08
114 (#13 catches, 1 TD) - Texas Tech - 8/30/08
112 (6 catches, 0 TD) - Central Washington - 9/16/06
#Second in school history behind Aaron Boyce.
100-Yard Receiving Games Brynsen Brown
147 (%11 catches, 1 TD) - Sacramento State - 11/1/08
139 (5 catches, 0 TD) - Portland State - 9/29/07
138 (9 catches, 2 TD) - Northern Arizona - 10/28/06
104 (4 catches, 1 TD) - Idaho State - 9/27/08
104 (7 catches, 0 TD) - McNeese State - 11/24/07
104 (5 catches, 0 TD) - Sacramento State - 9/3/06
99 (6 catches, 1 TD) - Weber State - 11/17/07
%Ninth in school history.
2008 SEASON RECAP & NOTES
Thanks to a three-game winning streak to end the 2008 season -- including a season-ending victory over eighth-ranked and Big Sky Conference champion Weber State -- the Eastern Washington University football team salvaged the 2008 season with its 11th winning season in the last 13 years.
"You always want to play good at the end of the year," said head coach Beau Baldwin after his first season as a head coach ended with the 33-26 victory over the playoff-bound Wildcats. "I don't care if you have playoff implications or not, there is always meaning to peaking at the end of the year. Whether it means it is good carryover to the off-season or it's sending the seniors out right, there is always the need for momentum.
The Eagles ended the regular season with a victory for the 10th time in the last 12 seasons. Eastern opened November with a 15-13 home loss to Sacramento State to fall to 3-5 for the season, but rallied for wins at Northern Colorado (31-16), at home versus Northern Arizona (28-13) and Weber State.
"It showed what we were able to do when we finally came together," said Baldwin. "We had a new coaching staff and had a lot of new things to learn. In some games we all struggled, but we learned from that and got better. We played our best football at the end of the season, and that gives us momentum as we head into the off-season. Hopefully we can continue that right through to next season when practices start in August."
The Eagles had entered the year as the seventh-ranked team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision and had hopes of qualifying for the FCS Playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. But three losses in a four-game stretch from Oct. 4 to Nov. 1 spoiled those hopes.
"I give so much of the credit to these players -- they really stuck with it," said Baldwin. "There were certain expectations and things didn't go exactly right. It says a lot about this team to win not only the Weber State game against one of the top Big Sky teams I've ever seen, but the last three games of the season with two of them coming on the road.
"We had to fight back to achieve that this season after digging ourselves a little bit of a hole," he added. "That's big in recruiting. We showed that we were capable of playing with any team in this conference. That goes a long way with recruits."
Weber State had entered the game having already clinched at least a share of the Big Sky title and assured itself of the league's automatic berth in the NCAA Football FCS Playoffs. But the loss to EWU, coupled with Montana's victory over Montana State, also gave the Grizzlies a share of the league title. It was the 11th-straight season UM has won or shared the Big Sky title, and they went on to defeat Weber State in the quarterfinals of the playoffs after both schools picked up first-round wins.
"It was a great way to end the season for the players coming back, but it was also great to see the seniors close out with three-straight wins and a huge win in Ogden," said Baldwin of the season-ending triumph.
"It fell into place nicely for the seniors," he continued. "How fitting for Greg Peach in his last collegiate play to fall on a fumble and seal the win? But it was still hard. We came off that great win and were so ecstatic, but then you look around and see how hard it was for the seniors to even take off their pads. They know that once they take them off, that's it."
Montana and Weber State both finished with a 7-1 Big Sky record, with fifth-ranked Montana entering the FCS Playoffs 11-1 and the Wildcats entering 9-3 overall. The Eagles finished their season 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky to finish third.
"I said before the season I thought we were the best team (in the Big Sky) and I still think we're the best," said senior running back Alexis Alexander after he helped Eastern jump out to a 33-7 lead over the Wildcats before holding on for the victory. "We had our ups and downs this season, but it feels good to finish strong. We had so much fun and our team came together in such a great way at the end of the season."
For 18 Eastern seniors, including 11 four-year letter winners, the Weber State game was their final hurrah. Several of those players were in the program since 2004 and had been a part of two Big Sky championships (2004, 2005), three playoff berths (2004, 2005, 2007) and 34 total victories.
"We've had incredible adversity and it was a gut-check for our team," said Baldwin, whose team also suffered through several ill-timed injuries that contributed to its downfalls. "They stayed together through tough times and the seniors kept battling. It's hard to play at the end of the year when you know you are approaching the finish rather than playing for something."
-- More Season-Ending Notes -- In 12 seasons starting in 1997, only twice has EWU failed to end the regular season with a victory (1998 and 2003). Eastern has now ended the regular season with a victory the last five seasons -- as well as nine of the last 10. Included is a 40-6 win over Idaho State to end the 2006 campaign and a 38-16 victory over Weber State in 2007 to wrap-up a playoff berth for the Eagles. Eastern finished 3-8 in 2006 before rebounding for a 9-4 finish in 2007.
Eastern's defense was superb in the second half of the season, holding five-straight opponents from Oct. 11 to Nov. 15 to 19 points or fewer. That is something that EWU has never done since becoming a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1984.
And Eastern did it with a defense that was ranked 118th and last in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in passing defense, allowing an average of 336.5 yards per game. But Eastern overcame that by ranking 11th in rushing defense (93.5), fifth in sacks (3.1 per game) and ninth in total tackles for loss (7.9).
Offensively, Eastern ranked seventh nationally in passing (299.9 per game) and 24th in total offense (398.5). Individually, national awards candidates Greg Peach and Matt Nichols led the way. Peach, who won the Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player in FCS, led the nation in sacks (1.64) and tackles for loss (2.1). Nichols, a Payton Award candidate given to the top offensive player, ranked fifth in total offense (306.9) and sixth in passing offense (299.4).
Entering 2009, the Eagles have not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown since the 1999 season -- a total of 485 touchdown-less returns. The last kickoff return for a score the Eagles surrendered came on Sept. 25, 1999 when Terrence Jones from Cal State Northridge had an 86-yard return for a TD. In the last 675 returns (13 years from 1996-2008) the Eagles have allowed just a pair of kickoff returns for scores, with both of those coming in 1999. In that same span, Eastern has returned 14 kickoffs for touchdowns.
-- EWU in 2008 National Statistics -- The Eagles finished with the seventh-best passing offense in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (299.9 yards per game) and were also 24th in total offense (398.5), 98th in rushing offense (98.5) and 35th in scoring offense (29.4).
Defensively, Eastern was last among 118 teams in FCS in passing defense (336.5), 106th in total defense (429.9) and 72nd in scoring defense (26.8). Oddly enough, Eastern was an impressive 11th in rushing defense (93.5), fifth in sacks (3.09 per game) and ninth nationally in tackles for loss (7.9 per game). The Eagles were also 12th in kickoff returns (22.9 per return).
However, the most important statistic during the season might have been turnover margin, and Eastern was 74th in FCS with a negative 0.18 turnovers per game. In Eastern's six wins the Eagles were a plus seven in turnover margin (nine giveaways and 16 takeaways), but in their losses EWU was a negative nine in turnover margin (15 giveaways and six takeaways).
-- EWU Individual Leaders -- National awards candidates Greg Peach and Matt Nichols ranked high in NCAA Football Championship Subdivision statistics.
Peach led FCS in both sacks (1.64 per game) and tackles for loss (2.1 per game), and was 16th in the Big Sky in tackles (6.45). He had 14 of his 18 sacks in a five-game stretch from Sept. 20 to Oct. 18. He had four in the Montana game on Oct. 11 and three against Western Washington, Idaho State and Montana State. Although he had none versus Sacramento State, he had two at Northern Colorado on Nov. 8 and a pair the week after that against Northern Arizona. He A junior on the Walter Payton Award watch list, Nichols had six 300-yard passing performances, and finished sixth in FCS in passing offense (299.4). He was also fifth nationally in total offense (306.9) and 40th in passing efficiency (131.5).
Receiver Aaron Boyce, with 22 catches for 316 yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back games earlier in the season against PSU and Idaho State, was 31st in FCS in receptions per game (5.7). He was also 27th nationally in reception yards per game (83.4). Brynsen Brown, with career bests of 11 catches for 147 yards against Sacramento State, was 39th in receptions per game (5.6) and 30th in receiving yards (81.4) after missing the last two games of the season with a shoulder injury. Although he missed the Portland State game on Oct. 4 with a sprained ankle, receiver Tony Davis caught 53 passes after a shoulder injury held him to 35 all of the 2007 season. Davis was 47th nationally in receptions per game (5.3) and 79th in receiving yards (57.9). Davis also averaged 10.3 yards per punt return to rank 27th in FCS.
In addition, kicker Felipe Macias had field goals of 55 and 52 yards to his credit -- the only player to have made a 50-yarder in the first two weeks of the season. He finished with two of the six longest field goals in FCS and one of only two players with two of 50-plus yards.
Punter Fritz Brayton was also impressive on special teams, averaging 42.33 yards per kick to rank 12th in FCS. His season average ranks fourth in school history and his 41.0 career average ranks third.
Defensively, twins Matt Johnson and Zach Johnson, a pair of redshirt freshmen, combined for 179 tackles to rank 1-2 on the team. Zach, whose 96 tackles ranks 20th in school history, was third in the Big Sky (8.7 per game) and 47th nationally. Matt had 83 total tackles and was eighth in the league (7.6). Zach also had seven passes broken up and ranked eighth in the league in tackles for loss (0.95 per game). Matt had four interceptions to rank 47th in FCS and sixth in the league (0.36 per game).
Ryan Kelley had three interceptions -- all in back-to-back games against Montana State and Sacramento State -- and was 15th in the league in tackles (6.7). Defensive end Jason Belford had six total sacks to rank 49th in FCS and eighth in the league (0.55 per game).
-- Defense Has Best Five-Game Roll Since Becoming FCS Member -- Having allowed point totals in the teens of 19, 17, 15, 16 and 13 in a five-game stretch from Oct. 11 to Nov. 15, Eastern's defense had never had such a stingy stretch in 25 seasons as a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. Eastern had a four-game stretch of allowing fewer than 20 points in 1997 when EWU finished with a school-record 12 victories, but that was the only time it has occurred since moving to FCS in 1984.
Eastern's defense gave up 623 passing yards and 597 total yards in a 47-36 loss at Portland State on Oct. 4. But in the six games after that, the Eagles surrendered just 106 points (17.7 per game), 1,594 passing yards (265.7), 640 rushing yards (106.7) and 2,234 total yards (372.3).
"The defense has done a great job," said Baldwin during his first season as head coach along with first-year defensive coordinator John Graham. "They've found a way to get better and better. It takes time sometimes. It was the same players but it's a new system and new terminology. It's a group coming together and understanding what their roles are in each situation."
"Our defense has made some good adjustments since the Portland State game," added defensive end Greg Peach. "We have a lot of young guys playing well. The season hasn't gone quite as we expected, but we're playing hard and we'll keep playing hard."
-- Boyce and Davis Have Second-Best Receiving Performances in School History -- Receiver Tony Davis, who missed four games in 2007 with a shoulder injury, led the Eagles with 13 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in Eastern's 49-24 loss to Texas Tech on Aug. 30. His catch total equaled the second most in school history, ranking only behind the 17 teammate Aaron Boyce had in 2007 against Montana. Davis, a 2005 graduate of Capital High School in Olympia, Wash., had 126 yards and a touchdown on six catches versus Western Washington on Sept. 20.
Aaron Boyce, meanwhile, duplicated the 13-catch feat against Portland State on Oct. 13. He finished with 181 receiving yards to rank as the 14th-most in school history. The 2007 All-American caught just 13 passes for 123 yards and one touchdown in his first three games of the 2008 season, but in his next two he caught 22 for 316 yards and four scores.
Not to be outdone, Brynsen Brown had his own double-digit receiving performance on Nov. 1 against Sacramento State. He had 11 catches to rank ninth in school history and his 147 yards receiving were a career high.