Eastern is now 8-2, needing a win Saturday against Idaho State to win the Big Sky title
The Eastern Washington University football team is basking in its highest ranking ever Monday (Nov. 15), and the Eagles have senior cornerback/kickoff returner Jesse Hoffman to thank for it.
Hoffman's performance on defense and special teams helped Eastern defeat Southern Utah 31-24 last Saturday (Nov. 13) and improve Eastern's record to 8-2. Hoffman and the Eagles will try to win at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title this Saturday (Nov. 20) when they host Idaho State at 1:05 p.m. at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
With No. 1 William and Mary and No. 4 Wofford losing last Saturday, the Eagles jumped to third this week in the Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll. This year's squad has surpassed the 1997 team -- which was sixth to end the regular season and fourth after the FCS Playoffs -- for the school's highest ranking ever.
A senior starting cornerback who joins Taiwan Jones as EWU's kickoff return threats, Hoffman has been selected as the Big Sky Conference co-Special Teams Player of the Week after his 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown versus Southern Utah. Hoffman has returned a pair of kickoffs for scores this season and ranks second in FCS in average per kickoff return (32.17 to rank behind the 32.31 average of Larrone Moore from Delaware State). Hoffman's career average of 26.3 yards on 24 career returns now ranks fourth in school history.
Hoffman, who was also nominated by EWU for Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors, saved the real fireworks for the fourth quarter with a pair of interceptions on the final two possessions of the day for the Thunderbirds. Hoffman's first interception came with 6:01 left in the game, followed by Eastern's game-winning drive. Hoffman's second pick came at the 2:58 mark, and Eastern's victory was sealed with a fake field goal attempt on fourth-and-four.
Hoffman also had four passes broken up, giving him nine for the season. He added six total tackles and ranks fifth on the team with 46 stops.
Hoffman returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in EWU's 35-28 victory over Northern Colorado on Oct. 16. Hoffman also had six tackles (one for loss) and a pass broken up against the Bears. It equaled the 13th longest kickoff return in school history, and was the longest in just over 10 years. It was also the first for the Eagles since Taiwan Jones returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in Greeley two years ago on Nov. 8, 2008. Jones also had a kickoff return for a TD against Northern Colorado in 2009, but it was called back because of a penalty.
Hoffman, who rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman for EWU in a 34-0 win at Northern Colorado in 2006, is a 2006 graduate of Shorecrest High School in Seattle.
More on the Rankings . . .
The Eagles moved up two spots to third in the Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, eclipsing the previous highest rankings ever by Eastern set in 1997 when that team was sixth in the regular season and finished fourth overall.
Eastern's 1997 team finished the regular season 10-1 and ranked a best-ever sixth, then received a No. 3 seed into the playoffs. The lone loss in the regular season for EWU was 17-7 at Montana State, the same school that defeated Eastern 30-7 earlier this season in Bozeman.
The 1997 team went on to win two playoff games before falling to eventual champion Youngstown State 25-14 in the semifinals. That EWU squad, coached by Mike Kramer and led by Big Sky Conference Players of the Year Harry Leons (offense) and Chris Scott (defense), finished the season 12-2 and ranked fourth in the final poll following the playoffs.
The Sagarin computer rankings have illustrated the league's strength thus far, with the Big Sky the top-rated FCS conference in the country for two weeks earlier this season (the Colonial is now first followed by the Big Sky). Nevada, a team Eastern lost to 49-24 on Sept. 2, is 22nd nationally among all FCS and FBS schools, while Eastern is 77th to rank fifth among all FCS schools. Other 2010 Eagle opponents and their FCS/overall rankings include Sacramento State (8th/84th), MSU (ninth/90th), Northern Arizona (18th/103rd), Montana (19th/105th), Weber State (23rd/115th), Southern Utah (28th/128th), Portland State (51st/160th), Northern Colorado (60th/175th) and Idaho State (86th/205th).
Eastern's 8-2 record overall thus far is its best start since winning the Big Sky Conference title in 1997 as the Eagles were the last team other than Montana to win the league title outright. Eastern's 6-1 league mark is its best seven-game start since 2004. Eastern finished the 1997 regular season 10-1 overall and 7-1 in the league before advancing to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs. Eastern was 6-1 in the league and 8-3 in the regular season in 2004 when EWU advanced to the quarterfinals of the playoffs.