By Kent Schmidt
College Sporting News
In the off-season, I had looked at the Eastern Washington schedule and thought the month of September would be a tough go as the defending national champion Eagles played three of four games on the road.
The schedule showed FBS Washington, South Dakota, and Montana all on the road to begin the season before closing out the month with last year's co-Big Sky champions Montana State at home as the Eagles' home opener on Sept. 24.
After two games, the rough stretch has turned out to be more correct than I originally thought.
The Eagles sit at 0-2 with two tough games left in the month and may be out the running before the opening month is complete.
Could the Eagles be out of the postseason race come the end of September?
That maybe be impossible as Eastern Washington could still have a chance at the postseason but the Eagles could finish the month at 0-4.
The Eagles started the season with a narrow lose to in-state FBS rival Washington 30-27, throwing an interception in the end zone at the end of the game and experiencing costly time management issues earlier.
The loss to the Huskies was understandable, but what came next was the biggest surprise.
In a game I got the privilege of attending, EWU lost 30-17 to a still-transitioning-FCS school, South Dakota.
The Coyotes are in their final year of transitioning from Division II to Division I this year.
"It's disappointing," said Eagle head coach Beau Baldwin. "There is no question we are capable of a lot more. We all have to do a better job this week and respond from this loss. That's where we are — we don't like the situation we're in, but we have to learn from this and step-up, including myself."
While South Dakota has produced some earlier success — last year the Coyotes defeated FBS Minnesota — USD has experienced very little success since moving up a level.
A 6-5 record has been South Dakota's best mark since the first FCS transition year in 2008, with just one of those wins against D-I competition.
Why has Eastern Washington lost its first two games?
The Eagles have been too one dimensional with the passing game.
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell had the second-best passing performance in Eagle history with 473 yards in the 30-27 loss to Washington, but had a potential game-winning pass intercepted in the end zone with 29 ticks of the clock remaining.
Mitchell had 69 attempts to get those numbers.
In the second game against USD, Mitchell was nearly the same with 60 pass attempts for 369 yards, but two more interceptions.
In total, Mitchell has thrown for five total touchdowns but has also tossed four interceptions.
The Eagle defense was one of the most opportunistic in terms of turnovers last year in 2010.
EWU ranked first nationally in interceptions (total of 26) and turnovers gained (47), and finished 17th nationally in turnover margin (.80 less turnovers per game than its opponents).
This year, EWU has given the ball up a total of six turnovers, while gaining just one.
The Eagles also won most of their close games a season ago.
In fact, of the team's 13 wins, seven of them were by a touchdown or less.
Last year, the fourth quarter was the Eagles top period of play in coming from behind in a number of those wins but thus far in 2011, this has not been the case.
The Eagles also have pretty much abandoned the running game thus far this year mostly due to having to come from behind.
In total, the Eagles have run for just 42 yards combined in the two games.
The Eagles also lost Taiwan Jones, who was the leading rusher last year.
He would have been a senior this year but decided to forgo his final season and was drafted by and is playing for the NFL's Oakland Raiders.
How can the Eagles turn things around?
The biggest things are to be a little more balanced on offense and to even out their turnover margin.
If both of these two items were completed in the first two games, we may be speaking about a 2-0 team right now.
The Eagles also need to not overreact to their opponent.
Last week, starting running back Mario Brown threw a punch during the South Dakota game and will be required per Big Sky Conference rules to sit the next game out.
EWU has the talent but turnovers, a lack of a balanced offense attack, and committing silly penalties have led to two losses.
Turning things around, however, will be difficult with the two Montana schools upcoming.
"Everybody who is a competitor is going to want to fight back," Baldwin said. "This is a tough spot we're in — it's never easy to dig out of a 0-2 hole. But the only possible chance we have is to grind it out a practice at a time and a game at a time. All our energy needs to go toward playing Montana."
Montana will be looking for revenge after a narrow defeat last year, where EWU scored the final nine points in the last four seconds in a 36-27 win last year in Cheney, WA.
Montana State defeated the Eagles at home in Bozeman 30-7, which at the end of the season propelled the Bobcats to the conference's automatic bid.
But the Eagles have the heart of a champion. They have come from behind before.
In fact, EWU started 2010 at 2-2 and two wins over the Montana schools will lead to the same record this year.
I have to believe the Eagles are going to be closer to winning two games in a row rather than losing the next two.
As last year showed, a team lead by Bo Levi Mitchell is one to not overlook and expect the team to turn things around and be a playoff and Big Sky Conference contender still this season.
CSN West Game of the Week
Eastern Washington (0-2) at Montana (1-1), 3 p.m. (All Times Eastern)
As mentioned earlier, this is one that Eastern Washington needs to win to keep its postseason dreams alive.
Montana, with a win, will set the early table for a possible return to normalcy after a year that saw the Grizzlies miss the postseason for the first time in 18 seasons.
Montana is coming off an impressive win over future Big Sky mate and current Great West member Cal Poly 37-23.
It was a game that the Grizzlies trailed 17-14 at the halftime break.
The Griz held the Mustangs to just two second-half field goals. Dan Moore ran for two touchdowns for Montana, the final one at the end of a 21-play, game-clinching drive.
Griz quarterback Jordan Johnson found his rhythm as well as Kavario Middleton and Jabin Sambrano with touchdown passes.
The Griz avenged an early season loss to Cal Poly a year ago and this week will look to avenge that road loss at Cheney to the Eagles last year.
The Eagles have not won two games in a row over Montana since 1990-92.
I have to believe that the Washington-Grizzly Stadium fans will give the home teams some energy as well but I believe the Eagles will play like their backs are against the wall given the two losses to start the season and that they will play without starting running back Mario Brown.
I believe they will rally around this adversary along with playing in front of the over 25,000 fans and they will quiet the crowd.
I like the Eagles to win with a late field goal.
Eastern Washington 27 Montana 24.