With similarities to 1997, Eagles are guaranteed of playing for at least a share of the Big Sky title on Nov. 20
It's beginning to look a lot like 1997 all over again.
The Eastern Washington University football team is ranked sixth this week in the Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, equaling the 1997 squad with the school's highest ranking ever in the regular season.
Additionally, Taiwan Jones was selected as Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week and earned national honors as well for his 199-yard, three-touchdown rushing effort in a 50-17 win over Portland State last Saturday (Oct. 30). As a result, the Walter Payton Award candidate moved into third in FCS in rushing (134.7 yards per game) and second in all-purpose yards (202.5). In 20 career games as an Eastern running back, he is now averaging 7.7 yards per carry with a total of 25 rushing touchdowns (plus six receiving and one on kickoff returns).
The Eagles, who have a bye this week, guaranteed themselves a shot at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title when they conclude their league slate versus Idaho State on Nov. 20 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. But before that, the Eagles face red-hot Southern Utah on Nov. 13 in a non-league game on the red turf surface at the "Inferno." Both games begin at 1:05 p.m.
"It's not easy to get to this point," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "The credit goes to our players -- they've battled through every situation. We've been down in the fourth quarter and they've found a way to win. Last week I thought we put it all together in a sense and we're trying to peak here at the end of the year. When all is said and done, we've put ourselves in a position where we'll play our final Big Sky game in control of our own destiny. It's hard to get to that point. Now we just have to work hard to finish it."
Eastern's 1997 team finished the regular season 10-1 and was ranked sixth, then received a No. 3 seed into the playoffs. The lone loss in the regular season for EWU was 17-7 to Montana State, the same school that defeated Eastern 30-7 earlier this season.
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.
Currently, Eastern is in sole possession of first place in the league standings and are 7-2 overall. Thanks to Weber State's 30-21 victory over Montana last week, Eastern is alone atop the Big Sky standings with a 6-1 record, with Montana State 5-1, UM at 5-2 and Weber State 4-2.
The Bobcats host Weber State this Saturday, then travel to Missoula to play the Grizzlies on Nov. 20.
Southern Utah is currently 5-4, and if it wins against NCAA Division II Dixie State this week, the Thunderbirds will come to Cheney with a five-game winning streak. The Eagles are just one of 12 FCS teams with a current streak of five-straight wins or better.
Baldwin said his team will practice Tuesday and Thursday this week before beginning its game week preparation for Southern Utah. Nose tackle Tyler Jolley (concussion) and tight end Ryan Seto (shoulder) missed last week's game, and Baldwin said the bye week will help those players -- as well as others dealing with nagging injuries -- to hopefully get healthy for EWU's stretch run.
"It comes at a great time," he said of the bye. "We're still going to practice a couple of times and get a few lifts in. We'll look at some Southern Utah video and start getting prepared for them. But it also gives us a chance help a few guys recover. Southern Utah is going to be a tough opponent in two weeks. It's going to be a challenge."
More on Jones . . .
Besides earning Big Sky Conference Player of the Week accolades for the third time this season and fourth time in his career, Jones was also recognized as the FCS national running back of the week by College Football Performance Awards.
He rushed for 196 of his 199 yards in the first half in EWU's easy 50-17 win at Portland State. The Eagles led 28-10 at halftime as Jones had a 71-yard TD that put him over the 100-yard mark for the 11th time in his 20-game career as an Eastern running back, including his 12th career play of at least 70 yards. He added a 65-yarder a few minutes later as he averaged 15.3 yards on 13 carries in the first half.
The Walter Payton Award candidate carried just once in the second half and finished with 199 yards. He now has 1,118 yards this season, becoming EWU's 15th 1,000-yard rushing performance in school history, including 11 in the last 16 seasons (1995-2010).
Coupled with three receptions for 62 yards, he had 261 yards of all-purpose yards on just 17 touches (15.4 yards per touch). It was his 10th career performance of 200 or more yards. His 199 rushing yards was the second-best performance of his career, ranking only behind the 221 he had earlier this season against Montana.
"He's just one of those players that can break it at any time, and that makes it tough on a defense," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "He's a playmaker and you better know where he is on every single snap. And even then, he's hard to stop."
He now has an average of 134.7 yards per game that ranks third in the NCAA Championship Subdivision. After leading the nation in all-purpose yards per game for several weeks early in the year, Jones is currently second with an average of 202.5 yards (rushing, receiving, returns) per game. He is also 11th in scoring (9.00 per game with 12 total touchdowns).
Jones, who averaged an impressive 7.5 yards per carry as a sophomore, was named to the initial 2010 Walter Payton Award Watch List this past summer by The Sports Network. And so far, he's lived up to that billing with a current average of 8.0 yards per rush.
After rushing for 455 yards in his first three games, injuries limited him to 111 in his next three (including one game missed). However, he has rushed for 512 yards in his last three games alone (170.7 per game) with seven touchdowns.
"He went through a stretch where he didn't play a ton, but since that stretch of time he's found a way to get better and better," added Baldwin. "He's done a great job of taking care of his body and doing the right things to put him in this position. From the standpoint of how healthy he is right now, he's in a lot better position than where he was last year at this time."