Jones Will Be EWU's Biggest Cheerleader On Friday Night
Eastern Washington will play for a national championship without the services of All-American running back Taiwan Jones, but the junior will find other ways to contribute
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
FRISCO, Tx. — It wasn't hard to find Taiwan Jones outside of Pizza Hut Park Wednesday as Eastern Washington went through practice in preparation for Friday night's NCAA Division I Football Championship game.
Jones limped his way to practice on crutches and in street clothes, a sure sign that the running back many believe is the best rusher in the Football Championship Subdivision would not be available for Friday's national championship contest.
The personable junior, who rushed for 1,742 yards and an incredible 7.9 average per carry this season, reached into his pocket for a cell phone and showed several people a photograph of an X-ray.
It was a picture of the left foot that Jones broke on Dec. 11 in the Eagles' 38-31 quarterfinal-round, overtime victory against North Dakota State. Clearly visible were the pins and screws that were inserted a few days later to repair the injury, located just above his pinky toe.
Jones had scampered for a career-high 230 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries before suffering the injury on the first play of the fourth quarter on the snow-slicked, Tabasco-red, SprinTurf at EWU's Roos Field.
"I was really feeling good on each play," Jones said of his performance before the injury.
Jones lost four yards and fumbled on the play, with one of his teammates recovering the ball as the junior had his leg accidently twisted in the pile.
"I slipped a little bit as I planted my foot," Jones explained. "I just remember getting up and it was a sharp pain."
He could only watch on helplessly the rest of the game, while his team battled back to win in dramatic fashion.
"I thought it was something that was going to go away," said Jones. "It was hard to watch, knowing I couldn't do anything about what was happening on the field."
But the sideline was even worse for Jones on the following week, as the Eagles played a nationally televised game against defending national champion Villanova.
"It was tougher watching against Villanova, because I couldn't contribute," Jones said.
But while this speedy and elusive ground-gainer with the loping strides won't be getting any carries on Friday night, he has found a way to make a difference for his team by becoming a personal coach to his backup, true freshman Mario Brown.
"The best thing I can do is stay around Mario during the game," said Jones.
Jones has been involved with game study and meetings as the Eagles prepare for Delaware and has been active in making suggestions to Brown and encouraging his younger teammate.
Despite the absence of Jones, Eastern Washington held off Villanova for a 41-31 victory in the semifinals on Dec. 17.
Brown was instrumental in the win, rushing for a season's best 104 yards with a workhorse-like 26 carries.
“A team that’s No. 1 in the country in both polls has to have a backup running back that’s pretty good," said Villanova coach Andy Talley after the semifinal game. "I think that they proved that tonight.”
While EWU would love to have its biggest game-breaker on a team of big play artists, coach Beau Baldwin is happy to have such depth.
"The loss of Taiwan is huge," Baldwin said. "But we have a lot of confidence in Mario and our other backs."
Jones may be an All-American at the FCS level, but he has been quick to complement the ability of his young understudy.
"During the practices, you see glimpses of greatness," Jones said of Brown.
Three weeks were not enough to completely heal Jones' broken bone and despite the disappointment of missing a national championship game, this Antioch, Ca. product hopes to play a lot more football in the future.
With his combination of speed and moves at running back, good hands as a receiver (24 catches, 14.3 average) and his tremendous ability as a returnman (22.7 average on kickoff returns during his career), Jones could receive a draft grade that is in the top four rounds next season.
The biggest obstacle for Jones might be his injury history.
Jones, who started his college career as a defensive back, broke a fibula as a freshman and missed the first four games of the 2008 season. Switching to running back as a sophomore, he was slowed by a sports hernia, but still rushed for 1,213 yards, 15 touchdowns and a 7.5 average.
This season, Jones sustained a hip contusion in a 30-7 loss to Montana State — the only FCS defeat that the Eagles have suffered this season and a loss that forced EWU to share the Big Sky Conference title with the Bobcats — and then missed the next game against Weber State.
But he recovered to string together seven consecutive 100-yard performances to close out his season. Jones managed nine 100-yard games in 12 outings and has reached the century mark 15 times in 24 career games as a running back.
Not bad for an athlete that didn't receiver any other scholarship offers out of Deer Valley High School and was almost ready to attend junior college powerhouse San Francisco City College, a program best known for producing O.J. Simpson.
"The only interest I got out of high school was from Sacramento State and they wanted me to walk on," Jones said. "When we got the chance to visit Eastern Washington, my mom said 'You're going here.' I've loved ever since."
The decision to come to Cheney, Wa. has been a positive one for Jones, as he has helped the Eagles make three playoff trips in his four years with the program, culminating with Friday's title fight.
But for all of his contributions on the field, Jones will be reduced to the role of cheerleader for this game and will have to rely on his teammates to get him a national championship ring.