Eastern running back has career-high 322 all-purpose yards as fourth-quarter turnover hurts Eagles in comeback bid
Despite a big day from Eastern’s biggest playmaker, Nevada rolled up 553 yards of offense and went on to hand Eastern Washington University a season-opening 49-24 loss Thursday (Sept. 2) at Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.
The Wolf Pack from the Western Athletic Conference scored two touchdowns in the opening seven minutes of the game and used a 96-yard drive late in the half to take a 28-10 lead at intermission. A fourth-quarter fumble by EWU helped Nevada regain an 18-point lead and the Wolf Pack added a late score to win by 25.
The Eagles, from the Big Sky Conference, next host Central Washington on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 6:05 p.m. in the second edition of the Showdown on the Sound at Qwest Field in Seattle, Wash.
“Going down early is hard -- it’s tough in any game let alone against a really good team like Nevada,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “We fought and scrapped and had different opportunities to make it close again. Hopefully we’ll get better going into next week and make those plays.”
Returning All-America running back Taiwan Jones accounted for a career-high 322 all-purpose yards (rushing, receiving and returns), including an 82-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and a non-scoring 74-yard run. A 1,000-yard rusher a year ago as a sophomore, Jones rushed 12 times for 145 yards, had another 92 yards on two receptions and 85 yards on four kickoff returns.
His previous career high was 279 yards against Sacramento State on Sept. 26, 2009. He now has seven plays in his career of 71 yards or more and 12 of at least 50.
“It’s almost to a point where I’m not surprised, but he made a few more plays tonight that make you marvel at how he can make plays,” praised Baldwin. “Even when things aren’t there he is able to make them. He has a toughness and grit to him -- he bangs it up in there so he’s not just a fast guy. He’s a special football player and obviously the big-play guy in our offense.”
A transfer from Southern Methodist, Mitchell completed 19-of-35 passes for 253 yards in his debut. But Eastern was just 6-of-14 on third down (including just one of its first six), and Eastern managed 432 yards of offense on 68 plays.
“There were a lot of positive things from tonight,” said Baldwin. “You look at the scoreboard and that’s one thing, but we were just a few plays here or there short. We could never quite get it back to one score. We had a few chances but things just didn’t go our way.
“There will be no excuses for not getting better and performing at a high level on offense,” he added. “We have no excuses not to and that is our expectation as we go forward this season.”
“I want us to move the ball faster and move the sticks,” he added. “We weren’t as effective as we need to be. Our timing needs to get better and it will.”
Nevada jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead just 6:19 into the game thanks to a pair of Eastern special teams miscues. The Wolf Pack opened with a 57-yard kickoff return and scored four plays later, then had another 41-yard scoring drive moments later after a 10-yard Eastern punt following a poor snap.
“It was one of those things where we just needed to relax after the start we had,” Baldwin explained. “Especially because of a couple of things that happened on special teams, it seemed like we might have been over-amped. Sometimes that happens in your first game of the year -- you get a little too excited. We just had to slow down and get used to their tempo. Our defense definitely got used to what they were doing.”
Eastern scored a touchdown on an 82-yard catch and run by Jones, then Nevada took a 21-7 lead with an 80-yard scoring drive. Early in the second quarter Eastern had a 42-yard field goal by Mike Jarrett to pull within 11 points, but later was unable to take advantage of a Wolf Pack fumble that was recovered by Eastern’s Zach Johnson. A junior linebacker, Johnson missed the entire 2009 season with a blood clot in his leg.
The Wolf Pack scored on a 96-yard drive just before halftime, then scored the first time they had the ball in the second half to take a 35-10 lead. Jones’ 74-yard run led to a 5-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Brandon Kaufman.
Eastern had an 80-yard scoring drive late in the third quarter to pull within 35-24, as Darriell Beaumonte scored on a 1-yard plunge. The Eagles had a chance to cut into the 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, but an EWU fumble led to a Nevada and 42-24 lead.
“We’ll have a bad taste in our mouth and we’ll come back hungry with a couple of more days to prepare for Central,” added Baldwin. “That will be a tough ballgame but we’re going to get after it.”
Eastern played the Wolf Pack for the first time since 1991. Current Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin was a sophomore starter at quarterback at Central Washington that season, but the head coach on the Nevada sideline is the same as Chris Ault is in his 26th season at the helm. Ault’s team was a member of the Big Sky Conference back in 1991 when the Wolf Pack romped to a 51-14 win at EWU’s Woodward Field. Nevada finished 12-1 and unbeaten (8-0) in the league, and then advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Eastern closed the 1991 season with a 5-6 record, and then shared the Big Sky title with Idaho in 1992 when both Nevada and Boise State departed for the Big West Conference.
Nevada started competition in the Western Athletic Conference in 2000 and recently announced plans to leave for the Mountain West Conference in 2012.
A year ago, Nevada was 8-5 overall and 7-1 in the WAC last season, having lost its first three games and its last two. The Wolf Pack ended the season with a 45-10 loss to SMU (current Eagle Bo Levi Mitchell was a member of that SMU team) in the Hawaii Bowl. The Wolf Pack featured an offense that led the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 344.9 yards rushing per game and had three 1,000-yard rushers. The Wolf Pack was second in total offense (505.6) and sixth in scoring (38.2).
The team’s top two rushers were underclassmen (Vai Taua/1345 yards/10 touchdowns and Colin Kaepernick/1,183 yards/16 touchdowns), with Kaepernick also passing for 2,052 yards and 20 touchdowns while accounting for 36 total TDs. Kaepernick passed for 306 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Eastern, and Taua had 51 yards on 12 carries.
The Eagles finished the 2009 season with an 8-4 record and advanced to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs for the fourth time in the last six seasons. Eastern expects to return 10 starters from that team -- including five on offense and five on defense, plus a pair of returning players who started nearly half of the season as injury replacements.