Eagles Head for Bozeman Before Week Off
Oct. 13, 2008
You never want to look past an opponent, but the upcoming bye on the Eastern Washington University football schedule is looking pretty good right now.
A bit of rest is on the horizon for the injury-depleted Eagles, but first EWU travels to Bozeman, Mont., to face Montana State in a Big Sky Conference game Saturday (Oct. 18) at MSU’s Bobcat Stadium. Kickoff is 12:05 p.m. Pacific time.
Reeling from a pair of losses that have dropped the Eagles from a top 11 ranking in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision to virtual elimination from the Big Sky title chase, Eastern will try to snap its two-game losing streak versus the Bobcats. The Eagles, 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the league, have been hit hard in the last three weeks by injuries, particularly at middle linebacker, cornerback, receiver and on special teams.
"I think it will be good for us, but there is a part of me that is glad to be playing this week because we want to put it all together and have some success," said head coach Beau Baldwin. "Ultimately, whether the bye is this week or next week, it’s going to be good for our team at this point because we’ve had a rash of injuries. To let some of our players heal-up will be a good thing."
The Eagles opened league play with a 45-31 victory over ISU on Sept. 27, but have since suffered losses to Portland State 47-36 and Montana 19-3 that have essentially ended EWU’s hopes of a fourth FCS Playoff berth in the last five seasons.
Baldwin said Eastern’s preparation and enthusiasm were good heading into last week, and he was disappointed the Eagles weren’t rewarded for their effort.
"That’s the part that is the toughest," he explained. "The players did things right during the week and our preparation was great. When you don’t come out with the result from the effort you put into something that can be extremely deflating. But 100 percent of our focus now has to be towards Montana State -- we have to practice like we did the week before and make needed corrections. Whether you win or lose a ballgame, you have to move forward."
This week, Eastern plays a Bobcat team that is 3-3 on the season and 1-1 in the conference. Montana State defeated Idaho State 33-21 on Oct. 4, then fell to league-leading Weber State 35-12 last week at home.
"They are similar to Montana in that they aren’t necessarily flashy, but they are well-coached and solid in all aspects of the game," explained Baldwin. "They run the ball a ton and have a heavy run-to-pass ratio (246 rushes, 169 passes). They believe in ball-control, defense and staying in tighter ballgames. They grind on you and find a way to win. So we have to expect that type of battle -- I expect it to be a polar-opposite of our games against Portland State and Idaho State. We are going to be in a slugfest against a very sound football team."
But aside from the losing streak and this week’s opponent, the injuries are causing Eastern the most concern. However, Baldwin doesn’t like to use the injuries as an excuse.
"The players that were replacing starters or had been moved around a little bit have done a good job and have handled things well," praised Baldwin. "When all was said and done, we didn’t make enough plays offensively to win (against Montana) and we were never able to get the lead. We had two mishaps on special teams and you can’t have those. In a game like that, it can come down to two or three plays that can make the absolute difference. I think that was definitely the case against Montana."
"One area that gets overlooked when you have injuries is special teams," Baldwin added. "Players have been in certain positions all year, but now we’ve had to shuffle players in and out of spots."
At middle linebacker, Makai Borden has missed the last two starts with an ankle injury, a year after fighting toe and foot injuries. In his two seasons at EWU, the Eagles are 11-3 when he is in the starting lineup and 0-5 when he is not.
"That’s a compliment to what Makai brings to our team," said Baldwin. "He’s a great player, but he also brings a lot of emotion to the defense."
Making the injury to Borden that much more difficult was a shoulder injury to backup Marcus Walker that limited him to one series the last two weeks. As a result, Eastern has moved linebackers from other positions -- namely freshman Zach Johnson and junior Kyle Wilkins -- to fill that role in the middle.
"Kyle Wilkins did a great job against Montana despite playing very little middle linebacker," praised Baldwin. "Without Makai and Marcus in there, I was proud of the way Kyle came in and battled at a position where he has had very few reps."
At receiver, Tony Davis (ankle) missed the PSU game and Ashton Gant (hamstring) has missed two games. And at cornerback, Taiwan Jones (broken fibula) missed EWU’s first four games before being thrust into a starting position when starter Lonnie Hosley (foot) was injured against PSU.
Eastern is also playing without Tyler Hart, who suffered a broken scapula versus ISU and is out indefinitely. At the time of his injury, he was returning punts and kickoffs and playing as a backup tailback.
The good news on the injury front is that all of those players, with the possible exception of Hart and Hosley, will be back for EWU’s stretch run in November. However, the Eagles will face the likelihood that their role during that time will be as a spoiler and of building for the 2009 season.
"Our players are resilient -- they do a better job sometimes than the coaches," said Baldwin. "They are looking to battle this week. Sometimes you can get caught up in looking way far down the road and sometimes it can hurt you. Our players are focused on right now and what we are going to do at Montana State. They are excited for that and take pride in improving. They are hurting from the last couple of weeks and they want to erase that. I’m excited to see how we practice this week and play against Montana State."
Eastern will be trying for its fifth-straight victory over MSU, which hasn’t defeated the Eagles since 2002. Eastern has pretty much had its way with the Bobcats in the 31-game history of the series with a 23-8 record overall. The Eagles are 12-5 in Bozeman, 10-3 at home and 1-0 at neutral sites, and EWU has won 14 of the last 17 meetings.
Following Saturday’s game, Eastern receives a much-needed bye week prior to playing its final four games of the regular season in November. Eastern has Homecoming on Nov. 1 against Sacramento State, followed by a road game at Northern Colorado on Nov. 8. The Eagles close the season against two of the Big Sky’s top teams -- Northern Arizona at home on Nov. 15 and at Weber State on Nov. 22. Both the Lumberjacks and Wildcats are nationally-ranked and are currently 3-0 in the Big Sky.
-- EWU in National Statistics -- Despite passing for only 191 yards in a 19-3 loss to Montana, the Eagles still feature the third-best passing offense in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (319.3 yards per game) to rank only behind Stephen F. Austin (327.2) and Portland State (403.0). The Eagles are also 16th in total offense (421.8), but dropped from 13th to 33rd in scoring offense (30.7) after scoring just a field goal versus the Grizzlies.
Eastern remains last among 118 teams in FCS in passing defense (384.3), and is 117th in total defense (473.8) and 104th in scoring defense (34.7). Oddly enough, Eastern is 14th in rushing defense (89.5), 10th in sacks (3.2 per game) and second nationally in tackles for loss (9.5 per game). However, the most important statistic might be turnover margin, and Eastern is 100th in FCS with a negative 0.8 turnovers per game.
A junior on the Walter Payton Award watch list, Nichols has already had four 300-yard passing performances, and leads the Big Sky and FCS in passing offense (318.3). He is also second nationally in total offense (321.7) and 56th in passing efficiency (126.5).
Peach, a senior defensive end on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list, has had all 11 of his sacks in EWU’s last four games. He had four in the Montana game on Oct. 11 to maintain his FCS lead in that category (1.8 per game) and is second nationally in tackles for loss (2.2 per game).
Junior receiver Aaron Boyce, with 22 catches for 316 yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back games against PSU and Idaho State, is 14th in FCS and third in the BSC in receptions per game (6.5). He is also 27th nationally and sixth in the league in reception yards per game (82.5).
Although he missed the Portland State game on Oct. 4 with a sprained ankle, junior receiver Tony Davis has already caught 32 passes after a shoulder injury held him to 35 all of the 2007 season. Davis is 24th nationally and fifth in the league in receptions per game (6.2).
In addition, kicker Felipe Macias already has 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. Entering this week’s action, he still has the two of the three longest field goals in FCS and is the only player with two of 50-plus yards. Punter Fritz Brayton has also been impressive, averaging 41.9 yards per kick to rank 22nd in FCS.
Defensively, twins Matt Johnson and Zach Johnson, a pair of freshman redshirts, have combined for 95 tackles thus far to rank 1-2 on the team. Zach is third in the Big Sky (8.8 per game) and 42nd nationally, and Matt is 11th in the league (7.0). Zach also has four passes broken up and ranks 14th nationally and second in the league in tackles for loss (1.7 per game). Matt has three interceptions to rank 21st in FCS and fifth in the league (0.5 per game). Defensive end Jason Belford has four total sacks this season to rank 32nd in FCS and sixth in the league.
-- MSU in National Statistics -- Montana State’s top team rankings offensively are 40th in rushing (162.5) and 44th in scoring (29.0). Defensively, the Bobcats are 22nd in rushing (99.7) and 14th in sacks (2.8), and are 86th in passing defense (236.8). Like the Eagles, MSU is 100th in turnover margin (-0.83 per game).
Individually, Demetrius Crawford is 33rd in FCS and fourth in the Big Sky in rushing (84.7 per game). Eric Fisher is 10th in punting (42.9) and Cory Nicol is 21st in interceptions (0.5).
-- Nichols Has Four 300-Yard Passing Games -- Junior quarterback Matt Nichols has had four 300-yard passing games this season, giving him a total of 10 in his 30-game career thus far. He had 418 yards against Portland State (10/4/08) to rank as the third-best in his career and 10th-best in school history. A week earlier, he had 382 and five touchdowns against Idaho State (9/27/08) as he earned Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors. Currently on the 2008 Walter Payton Award Watch List, his completions (36) and attempts (61) against Texas Tech on Aug. 30 both rank as the second-most in school history.
On EWU’s career passing lists, Nichols ranks in the top five in all categories, including second in total offense (7,930) as he passed Mark Tenneson (7,428 from 1989-92) versus PSU. Nichols is also third in passing yards (7,403) and second in average passing yards per game (246.8). He is now just 89 passing yards from catching Tenneson (7,492) on that list. 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 is also sixth in efficiency rating (135.4), second in touchdown passes (54, ranking only behind the 84 of Meyer), second in completions (588) and third in attempts (975).
Below is a complete list of his 300-yard outings:
300-Yard Passing Games for Nichols
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 - 19x30, 2td - Portland State - 9/29/07 (#27 in school history)
335 - 36x61, 1td - Texas Tech - 8/30/08 (#40 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
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
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
314 - 303 passing, 11 rushing - Colorado - 9/6/08
-- Wide Receiver Trio Ahead of Previous Quartet -- Eastern’s receiving corp in 2008 includes three juniors – 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 389 catches for 5,391 yards and 35 touchdowns in 85 games worth of experience (70 starts). 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 2007.
Boyce has already moved onto EWU’s career lists, ranking fifth in catches (159), eighth in touchdown catches (18) and seventh in receiving yards (2,274).
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). But after their first two seasons as Eagles, that quartet had just 121 catches, for 1,774 yards and 17 touchdowns -- less than half of the production that Davis, Brown and Boyce had in their first two years.
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)
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
107 (9 catches, 0 TD) - UC Davis - 9/15/07
*School record. #Second in school history behind Aaron Boyce.
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
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
-- Boyce and Davis Have Second-Best Receiving Performances in School History -- Junior Tony Davis, who missed four games last season 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. Davis now has five 100-yard receiving performances in his Eastern career.
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.
-- Five Players Make Starting Debuts -- Five players, including three on defense and two on offense, made their starting debuts at Texas Tech on Aug. 30.
The defensive debuts were made by weak-side outside linebacker J.C. Sherritt, strong-side inside linebacker Zach Johnson and strong safety Matt Johnson. Sherritt is a sophomore from Pullman, Wash. (Pullman HS ’06) and the Johnson twins are redshirt freshmen from Tumwater, Wash. (Tumwater HS ’07). The Johnson twins were playing in their first collegiate football game.
On offense, both new starters were offensive guards. Ryan Forney, a junior from Silverdale, Wash. (Central Kitsap ’05) started at left guard and Bryan Smith, a senior from Enumclaw, Wash. (Enumclaw HS ’04) started on the right.
Since then, only five new starting debuts have been made. Sean Rock started at center versus Idaho State and defensive nose tackle Renard Williams and linebacker Kyle Wilkins both made their starting debuts against Western Washington. Against Portland State on Oct. 4, Will Edge started as a nickel back as the Eagles faced the No. 1 passing offense in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. Freshman redshirt Taiwan Jones made the first start of his career against Montana on Oct. 11 after missing EWU’s first four games of the season after suffering a broken fibula in preseason practices.
-- Starting Experience Leads to Wins -- Returning starts -- and the experience that goes along with them -- can sometimes be a good gauge of how many wins can be expected on the field. In the last six years, EWU’s top three win-loss records (collective 25-13) were recorded by teams that returned at least 245 starts. The worst three records (collective 15-18) were by teams with 225 returning starts or fewer.
The Eagles entered the 2008 season with 26 players returning with starting experience totaling 272 starts. Broken down, Eastern returns 136 starts on both defense and offense (13 players each) for a total of 272 starts returning.
By contrast, Eastern entered the 2007 season with 31 players returning with starting experience and a total of 245 starts. Of the total, just 80 were on the defensive side and 165 were by offensive players. The Eagles opened the 2006 season with 25 players with starting experience, amounting to 225 starts between them.
The Eagles entered the 2005 season with 23 players with starting experience (280 total starts). Just five players made their starting debuts for the Eagles in the season opener, but 13 made starting debuts after that because of a large amount of injuries the Eagles suffered.
The Eagles opened the 2004 season with 29 players with starting experience (271 starts), and in 2003 they had 28 players with starting experience (168 starts). However, Eastern had just 17 players with a combined 108 starts between them entering the 2002 season.
In both the 2003 and 2004 season openers, the Eagles had six new starters in the lineup. In 2002, 13 players made starting debuts in Eastern’s 38-2 loss at Arizona State.
Below is a breakdown by year of the returning starters Eastern has had and the record the Eagles ended up with.
Year - Players With Starting Experience - Total Starts - New Starters in Opener - Record
2008 - 26 - 272 - 5 - ?
2007 - 31 - 245 - 6 - 9-4 (total of 11 new starters used during the year)
2006 - 25 - 225 - 5 - 3-8 (total of 21 new starters used during the year)
2005 - 23 - 280 - 5 - 7-5 (total of 18 new starters used during the year)
2004 - 29 - 271 - 6 - 9-4
2003 - 28 - 168 - 6 - 6-5
2002 - 17 - 108 - 13 - 6-5
Here are the current number of career starts by Eastern players on the 2008 roster -- Defense (202 starts by 20 players) -- Greg Peach 35, Jason Belford 31, Lance Witherspoon 24, Kevin Hatch 19, Makai Borden 17, Lonnie Hosley 13, Shawn Powell 12, Ryan Kelley 11, Matt Johnson 6, Zach Johnson 6, Marcus Walker 6, Josh Jacobson 5, J.C. Sherritt 5, Tyler Jolley 4, Renard Williams 3, Taiwan Jones 1, Adam Macomber 1, Jacob Kragt 1, Kyle Wilkins 1, Will Edge 1.
Offense (202 starts by 16 players) -- Matt Nichols 29, Aaron Boyce 28, Brynsen Brown 26, Charlie Wulff 25, Dale Morris 18, Tony Davis 16, Chris Thomas 13, Alexis Alexander 9, Nathan Overbay 8, Brice Leahy 7, Bryan Smith 6, Ryan Forney 6, Toke Kefu 5, A.J. Jimerson 3, Matt Martin 2, Sean Rock 1.
-- Injury Report -- Redshirt freshman Tyler Hart is probably out for the season with a broken scapula suffered against Idaho State on Sept. 27. Hart has played as a backup running back as well as returning punts and kickoffs.
"It looks like he’ll miss the rest of the season," said EWU head coach Beau Baldwin. "It’s an uncommon place to have a break and it requires six to eight weeks to heal. Our biggest thing is to keep those other four senior running backs going strong and even feeding them the ball a little more. We were able to get the running game going a little bit against Montana, and we would like to build on that even more the rest of the year."
However, several other players continue to be questionable this week after a rash of injuries kept four other players out of the lineup against Portland State on Oct. 4 and two of them out of the Montana game as well.
Linebacker Marcus Walker also suffered a shoulder injury against Idaho State and did not play against PSU and played just one series versus Montana on Oct. 11. Three others were injured in practice the week of the PSU game and didn’t play against the Vikings, including leading wide receiver Tony Davis (ankle), starting linebacker Makai Borden (ankle) and backup receiver Ashton Gant (hamstring). Davis returned to play versus Montana, but both Borden and Gant missed games for the second-straight week. Borden, Gant and Walker all remain questionable this week.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Taiwan Jones, who broke his fibula the first week of pre-season practices, made his Eagle debut against Portland State and his starting debut versus Montana. He had even more playing time versus PSU than what was expected when cornerback Lonnie Hosley left the game with a foot injury. Hosley missed the Montana game and is listed as doubtful for this week’s game.
Eastern came out of its first three game fairly healthy. The only player to leave the Texas Tech game with an injury was Alexis Alexander, who sat out the Colorado game and returned to play against Western. Linebacker J.C. Sherrit left the Colorado game with a sprained ankle suffered on his 48-yard interception return for a touchdown. He missed the Western game but returned to play against Idaho State.
Senior starting nose tackle Shawn Powell suffered a knee injury before practices even began and is out for the season.
Interestingly, injuries to Alexander and Sherritt both occurred on touchdowns. Last year, Tony Davis injured his shoulder on a touchdown reception versus Portland State and missed four games.
Beau Baldwin QUOTES
-- On Losing Turnover Battle 5-1 Versus PSU -- "The turnovers were huge and that’s a big part of any game. In my opinion, there is no excuse on either side of the ball. Four of our turnovers were at very critical times offensively. On defense we have to create more turnovers, especially against a team that throws it 70-plus times. Whatever we have to do to change it we will, and that has to be our mindset. There is no question turnovers can be the difference in a season, and that’s the statistic that means the most when you look at a win-loss record. Most of the time the winner of the turnover battle is the winner of the game."
-- On Big Sky Race -- "It's one of those things where every week, in the Big Sky, there is anyone top to bottom that can beat anyone. And I really believe that, maybe this year more than ever. Some of those teams that were considered lower-level Big Sky teams in the last few years, those coaches are (in their) second year. Every one of those Big Sky teams is better than I think they probably were the year before. So, top to bottom, this conference is tough, and every week, if you have any sort of letdown, you will find yourself losing a ballgame."
-- On EWU’s Defensive Line -- "They are always going to be the meat and potatoes of our defense. We are going to be as good as our defensive line -- we are going to be in ballgames later on that are 17-10 or 13-7. You never know, those type of games happen too. We just have to make sure we're on the right end of those. I don't care what the final score is as long as we are on the right end."
-- On Narrow Loss to Colorado -- "It’s a sting, especially when you have to come back and watch the video. When you watch it you realize the things that might have been a little different could have helped us come out on top. But that’s part of it. We need to learn from it and move forward."
-- On Starters Playing All Eight Quarters in Openers -- "Our players are in great shape -- maybe even better shape than I might have thought. And they play with tremendous heart, so we have a group of players who dig deep. Despite the circumstances they found a way to do that, particularly in coming back from the Texas Tech game to do it again against Colorado. We were a little short in the end, but it’s still something we can build from and come out with a lot of positive things."
-- On Battling Back Versus Texas Tech -- "You go down 21-0 to any team -- let alone Texas Tech -- and it’s going to be hard to try to fight back from that. But our guys did. They fought back and made a few plays. We kept believing and that was the key thing. I’m not into moral victories, but I was very proud of the way our guys left it on the field."
-- On Second Half Versus TTU -- "We had basically won the second quarter 17-7, and there was no reason why we couldn’t win the third quarter 17-7 or something along those lines. We wanted to keep building momentum -- we had it in the second quarter and I told our team to do everything they could to keep that momentum. We knew Texas Tech was too well-coached and had too many good football players not to come out angry after halftime. It was going to be a tough fight, no question. But we kept fighting in that third quarter, and because of a few plays here and there it just slipped away from us in the end."
-- Baldwin on Preseason National Polls -- "There is some merit to be near the top because that can help you when it comes to the playoffs. That can sometimes make it a little easier to stay in the top 16 rather than to have to climb all the way into it."
-- Baldwin on Improvement by Nichols in 2007 -- "I wouldn’t say it totally surprised me by any stretch. That’s especially true when you understand how hard he works in the off-season and how hard he works the week before games. Once the games got going last season, he was just having fun. He put in a lot of time understanding what he had to do to be successful."
-- Baldwin on Nichols -- "You never expect a freshman that struggles a little bit to come back and be Player of the Year in the Big Sky. But if you would have asked me going into last year if he had the talent to do that, I would have said yes. And he obviously proved that."
-- Baldwin on Nichols Wanting Big Sky Title -- "I think he would trade 100 Big Sky MVP trophies for one Big Sky championship. That’s just his mindset."
-- Baldwin on Future Improvement of Nichols -- "He can just keep getting better and better. There were times last year when there were things he could have done to spread the ball out even more, and that’s something I want to see him do better this season. Sometimes you get comfortable with a certain player, and he and Boyce, obviously, had a special connection. I think Matt will be that much better if he can use his other receivers even more."
-- Baldwin on Nichols to Boyce Passing Combo -- "It’s pretty special -- they’ve developed an incredible rapport and had a great year. But I’ve talked to both guys about the fact we’ll be even more successful in some ways if there are less pass completions between Matt Nichols and Aaron Boyce. The more we can spread it out and involve seven, eight or nine players catching balls in the passing game, we will be that much better. Both Aaron and Matt might have better years even if their stats aren’t as good. I think we can become better as an offense because of that."
-- Baldwin on Boyce and Receiving Corp -- "I’m excited to coach Aaron again, and the rest of the receiving corp. It’s a good group and has a lot of relatively young players."
-- Baldwin on Nichols and Boyce -- "You not only are talking about talented players, but you’re talking about two mature student-athletes. They are great people and that is part of the reason for their success. They have great character off the field as well, and that will help keep those two grounded and keep them progressing. You don’t want them to get their heads in the clouds thinking they have it all figured out, and then all of the sudden an off year slaps you right in the face. I don’t see that happening to those two guys."
-- Baldwin on Future of Talented Junior Class -- "Each year is different, and a lot of things happen between your sophomore year and junior year, and your junior year and senior year. You can never predict the future. But I’m very fortunate to be in this situation. We have a ton of great weapons on offense."
-- Baldwin on Defensive Line -- "There are seniors up there who have all played significant roles since as far back as 2005. They are a veteran group. No matter how young you are at linebacker and in the secondary, if you are good on the defensive line you give those back seven guys a great chance to be successful. And vice versa -- if you’re not good on the defensive line, even All-America corners can’t cover for eight seconds. It’s huge for us from a defensive standpoint to have an experienced defensive line. All the great defenses are always going to start with the guys up front."
-- Baldwin on Offensive Changes -- "To an outsider looking at our team, you’re probably not going to see a lot of changes. There are some subtle changes we are making that are things I believe in and want to do. But it’s not going to be an overhaul. I don’t think you come into a program with a lot of success and make 180-degree changes. If you do, I think you’re letting your ego get in the way a little bit. I want to keep a lot of things familiar for those guys."
-- Baldwin on Defensive Changes -- "We have a new defensive coordinator, so it will be a little different. In the past we’ve started with a one-high safety philosophy and now we’ll use two high safeties as our base. We’ll still have the ability to roll down to an eight-man front. Our defense will probably have more changes than our offense from a scheme standpoint."
-- Series History -- Eastern has pretty much had its way with the Bobcats in the 31-game history of the series with a 23-8 record overall. Currently owning a five-game winning streak in the series, the Eagles are 12-5 in Bozeman, 10-3 at home and 1-0 at neutral sites.
In 2006 in Bozeman, Brett Bergstrom, the defense and a quartet of freshmen redshirts in the passing game led Eastern Washington to a 19-10 victory over Montana State in the Big Sky Conference football opener for both teams. Bergstrom, a senior who had never attempted an EWU field goal prior to the 2006 season, kicked four field goals, including three in the first half to give Eastern a 9-0 lead at halftime. He finished with field goals of 21, 53, 39 and 30 yards versus the Bobcats, with his 53-yarder ranking as the fourth-longest in school history. Eastern’s defense held Montana State to 235 yards of offense and Eastern redshirt freshmen Matt Nichols, Tony Davis, Aaron Boyce and Brynsen Brown added several big plays in the second half. Nichols, making just the third start of his career, completed 11-of-19 passes for 176 yards in the best game of his young career. Davis (six catches, 89 yards), Boyce (two catches, 49 yards) and Brown (two catches, 38 yards) were on the receiving end of several big plays as Nichols completed 10 of his last 14 passes in the final three quarters.
In 2005 in Cheney, quarterback Erik Meyer passed for 206 yards and rushed for another 48 before leaving the game with a mild concussion in the third quarter, and 21st-ranked Eastern Washington closed its Big Sky Conference football schedule with a 35-14 romp past 11th-ranked Montana State Nov. 12 at Woodward Field. The Eagles scored 35 unanswered points and held MSU scoreless for a span of 25:45 in finishing its conference season with a 5-2 mark. Less than two minutes after Meyer left the game, Eastern safety Bryan Jarrett intercepted Travis Lulay and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown that gave Eastern a 35-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The 2004 game was perhaps the most memorable game of the series as the 16th-ranked Eagles rallied from a 21-point second-half deficit -- and a touchdown deficit in the final minute -- and went on to stun 23rd-ranked Montana State 51-44 in overtime in Bozeman. On a day led by sensational juniors Eric Kimble and Erik Meyer, junior Craig McIntyre gathered in a 22-yard touchdown pass to start overtime that provided Eastern's winning points. Then-sophomore linebacker David Eneberg batted down a fourth-and-goal pass from the EWU 4-yard line to secure the win. Kimble finished a record-setting day with 10 catches for 196 yards and three scores. Meyer completed 25-of-41 passes for 372 yards and five touchdowns, finishing with what was then the 14th-most yards in a single game in school history. Montana State's Travis Lulay passed for 432 yards and rushed for 110 to finish with 542 yards of total offense. Eastern finished with 536 yards of total offense, and MSU had a school-record 683.
In a 2003 meeting at Spokane's Albi Stadium, a 36-yard rush on a third down play by Erik Meyer led to a game-winning touchdown late in the game as the Eagles beat MSU 34-25. Meyer completed 18-of-33 passes for 272 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and rushed six times for a net gain of 17 yards. The Eagles finished with 371 yards of total offense going against an MSU defense ranked third in NCAA Division I-AA in scoring defense (12.44) and 13th in total defense (281.44). The game was a defensive struggle for the most part, but turned into a shootout in the fourth quarter. Just 16 points were scored in the first 42:02 of the game (19 possessions). But in the last 17:58 (10 possessions), a whopping 43 points were scored by the two teams. Trailing 23-20, Meyer's 36-yard draw play set up a two-yard touchdown run by Eric Kimble as Eastern regained a 27-23 lead. The Eagles iced it with a pair of interceptions, first by Javid Shoemaker and then by David Eneberg.
In 2002, a 76-yard fumble recovery on an errant Eastern Washington lateral in the fourth quarter spelled doom for the Eagles as Montana State scored the final 22 points for a 25-14 victory in Bozeman. Eastern took a 14-3 lead in the first half, but Montana State shut down the Eagles after that, holding EWU to just 277 yards of offense for the game. Montana State held an 18-14 lead late in the game when Eastern drove 44 yards in six plays to the MSU 24-yard-line before the game-deciding turnover. Eastern receiver Eric Kimble had seven catches for 100 yards, and including returns and a rush for 12 yards, he finished with 193 all-purpose yards versus the Bobcats. Defensive tackle Brandon Myers led the Eagles with nine tackles, and linebackers Doug Vincent and Joey Cwik added eight and seven, respectively.
In 2001, the 16th-ranked Eagles were stunned by the Bobcats 48-38 on Oct. 6 at Albi Stadium. At the time the Eagles had won four of their last five games dating back to the end of the 2000 season, and were coming off a double-overtime loss to Montana. The Bobcats were 2-2 after a winless 2000 campaign in Mike Kramer's first season as head coach. Eastern needed just seven minutes and 43 seconds to score all 38 of its points, including only 3:26 to score its first 31. But when the Eagles weren't scoring, they were in a giving mood with four turnovers, a punt return for a touchdown and a punt attempt that went awry and gave MSU the ball at the Eagle 4-yard-line. The result was 14-straight Bobcat points to end the game. The lead changed hands six times during the game, and the loss spoiled a record-breaking day for Eastern's Lamont Brightful and Jesse Chatman. Brightful opened the second half with an 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that gave him five in his career to equal the NCAA Division I-AA record shared by two other players. Chatman had 176 rushing yards, including a pair of 22-yard touchdown runs that gave him a school-record 198 points scored in his career.
In 2000, a blocked field goal by Julian Williams was returned 67 yards for a touchdown by Alvin Tolliver to account for the only scoring in the second half as 23rd-ranked Eastern Washington escaped with a 20-14 victory in Bozeman. The Bobcats held Eastern's injury-riddled offense to 250 yards of total offense, but the Eagle defense held MSU to 325 yards, including just 110 yards and no points in the second half. Montana State nearly doubled Eastern in time of possession (39:34 to 20:26), and had 86 offensive plays to Eastern's 49. But Eastern stopped MSU on four fourth-down plays, including three in the second half. The biggest came on a sack and forced fumble on a blitz by backup linebacker Adam Zeiger with 3:08 to play and MSU at the Eagle 6-yard line.
In 1999, Chris Samms threw for a career-high 282 yards as Eastern used its passing attack to register a 45-23 victory over MSU in Bozeman. Samms completed 13-of-23 passes for three touchdowns and one interception as he had his best day as an Eagle. Samms had touchdown passes of 51 and 49 yards to Lamont Brightful, and a third score to Joe Levens. Brightful finished the game with four receptions for 169 yards, Levens caught four for 60 and Rich Naccarato led the Eagles with five catches for 79 yards. Sophomore running back Jovan Griffith went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season with 150 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Two of his scores came in the middle of the game when Eastern turned a 10-10 tie into a 31-10 blowout in the third quarter.
It was a 31-24 loss in Cheney in 1998 that started the downward slide for the Montana State program, culminating in the retirement of Cliff Hysell at the end of the 1999 season. The Bobcats were 6-2 and ranked 14th in the nation at that point, and then lost 22 of their next 28 games before knocking off the Eagles in 2001. In that 1998 game, seniors Bashir Levingston and Mike MacKenzie scored two touchdowns apiece and led Eastern to a the thrilling win over the Bobcats. Levingston caught touchdown passes of 58 and 43 yards from quarterback Griffin Garske, including the game-winner with 5:31 left in the fourth quarter. MacKenzie had what was then the third-best rushing game in Eastern history with 226 yards on 31 carries and touchdown runs of 17 and 43 yards.
In a 1997 meeting played in Bozeman, the Bobcats handed Eastern its only regular season loss of the season. That 17-7 decision snapped Eastern's six-game winning streak in the series. Eastern's offense was held to 296 yards and the Eagles had four turnovers in the game. One of them was an interception returned 23 yards for a touchdown by Jeff Alexander that provided the final points of the game with 13:15 left in the fourth quarter. Griffin Garske threw the interception after being hurriedly inserted into the game without even a warm-up toss after a concussion was suffered by starter Harry Leons. Eastern rushed for just 84 yards on the ground on 36 carries.
It was a different story in 1996 in Cheney as the Eagles won 20-13. Eastern's defense held the Bobcats to 169 yards of total offense, including just 61 passing. Eastern had 346 yards of offense as Garske completed 8-of-19 passes for 129 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Like the 1997 game, he was an injury replacement for starter Harry Leons, who left the game with a season-ending knee injury. And like the 1997 game, Garske's interception was returned for a touchdown, this time 49 yards by Omar Turner.
-- 2007 Revisited - Eastern Washington 35, #11 Montana State 13 -- There was concern but no panic when Eastern Washington University quarterback Matt Nichols left the game with an injury in the second quarter on Oct. 13, 2007, at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
But it was only a scare as the sophomore quarterback returned from a stomach contusion to throw for 257 yards and three touchdowns to help the Eagles pull away from 11th-ranked Montana State for a 35-13 Big Sky Conference football victory.
Nichols, who passed for 451 yards a week earlier, left the game in the second quarter with Eastern trailing 10-7. But his backup, junior Alex Smart, engineered a 71-yard scoring drive and tossed the touchdown pass that gave Eastern the lead for good.
"The second half our kids played real well and I’m really happy about that," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff. "I think we were a little uneasy when Matt went down, but things happen. We settled in and played a lot better in the second half."
Nichols led Eastern’s offense, completing 15-of-24 passes a week after throwing 59 times at Montana in a 24-23 loss. He finished with 300 yards of total offense as the Eagles rushed for an additional 183 yards en route to a 475-yard day on offense. He had 203 yards of offense in the second half alone, and was not sacked in the second half after getting sacked twice in the first half.
"We had to settle him down at halftime," said Wulff. "I am really proud of him because he came back and played well in the second half after being rattled physically. He ran the ball effectively to get us some key first downs and he was accurate, so he did a really good job."
Smart was 2-of-3 for 35 yards on the decisive drive in the second quarter. His 13-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Tom McAndrews gave EWU a 14-10 lead with 10:08 in the second quarter.
"That was a great drive," said Wulff. "We ran the ball well and that kind of kept Alex in the flow and he made a couple of nice throws. That says a lot about our team -- we have two players that can definitely step in and lead us against good quality opponents, score points and win games."
Eastern’s defense held MSU to a just a field goal in the second half, and chased MSU starting quarterback Jack Rolovich from the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. Rolovich had passed for 251 yards and a touchdown, but Eastern held MSU to just a field goal in the second half.
The Eagles allowed MSU just 315 yards of offense and had five sacks, and held the Bobcats to just 22 yards of rushing.
Eastern defensive Tackle Lance Witherspoon, who missed one full game and parts of two others with a high ankle sprain, returned to his starting position to register a team-high 10 tackles. He had one sack for a loss of eight yards, and three other tackles for loss totaling 10 yards.
Linebacker Makai Borden, who also missed a game and parts of two others with an injury (toe), added six tackles. He had an interception on third down in Eastern’s end zone to thwart a MSU drive.
Besides the efforts of Nichols and Smart, Eastern had plenty of contributions on offense. Receiver Aaron Boyce, coming off a 17-catch, 232-yard performance against Montana that earned him Sports Network National Offensive Player of the Week honors, caught five passes for 126 yards. Dale Morris rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, and Alexis Alexander and A.J. Jimerson added 32 and 30 yards, respectively, on the ground.
Jimerson, a junior fullback filling in for the injured Toke Kefu, scored the first touchdown of his Eastern career with a 5-yard pass from Nichols in the first quarter. Freshman tight end Matt Martin also had his first career TD with a 20-yard catch from Nichols in the third quarter that gave Eastern a 21-13 lead with 5:54 left in the period.
Morris scored on a 2-yard run late in the third quarter and Alexander scored on a 22-yard pass from Nichols with 8:19 left in he game as EWU scored the final 21 points of the afternoon.
Montana State had entered the game ranked fourth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in pass efficiency defense, allowing opponents just 195.4 yards per game and ranking 11th nationally with 10 interceptions. The Bobcats were ninth in scoring defense (14.6 per game) and 44th in total defense (340.4), having allowed opponents just two touchdowns in the last four games and just two touchdowns passing the entire year.