By PAUL DELANEY
For the Eastern Washington University football team, their 2012 season opening non-conference game Thursday night in Moscow at the Kibbie Dome against the University of Idaho is just another game.
Not that much different than last season's opener versus the University of Washington at Husky Stadium, or a 2010 debut at Nevada Reno.
“Our players don't get too concerned at the level of play your opponent plays at,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin told the Big Sky media during Monday's conference call. “Last year, whether it be Husky Stadium or various places we've gone that are FBS schools, we've thought in terms of it's just another college football team,” Baldwin said.
Eastern takes on its former Big Sky Conference rival in a game with a 6 p.m. kickoff and television broadcast on ESPN3.
It's the first meeting of the schools since Eastern claimed an odd 8-5 victory in the dome in 2003. But with Idaho treading water in a Western Athletic Conference that is leaking football playing members quicker than they'll ever replace them, much of the conjecture points to the Vandals returning to Big Sky play at the next available opportunity.
Eastern and Idaho played at least once for 17-straight seasons from 1983-1999. The Vandals then left the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision for the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. But as the landscape of major college football conferences continues to change, Idaho is being squeezed out – and likely squeezed down. Idaho announced it will return to the Big Sky Conference in all sports but football, but will remain a FBS independent at least for the time being.
That's down the road, however, because it's the here and now that is on the mind of Baldwin.
The Kibbie clash features a pair of teams that emerged from their respective 2011 seasons largely disappointed with the end result. Eastern battled injuries at many key positions and was 6-5 a year ago after winning the NCAA Division I title in 2010. Idaho finished 2-10 a year ago and 1-6 in the WAC.
“Our kids are still confident,” Baldwin said. “Just like with a Division II team we don't say ‘ah, we're going to play a play down game.” Again, Baldwin said, the Eagles look at it as another college football game.
Southern Methodist University transfer quarterback Kyle Padron emerged from a preseason camp battle with freshman Vernon Adams at the last minute and the junior will start versus the Vandals.
“Kyle is one of the biggest and strongest quarterbacks I've ever had to coach at this level,” Baldwin said.
At 6-foot-4-inches and 225 pounds, Baldwin said Padron sees the middle of the field well because of his height and size. His ability to “Throw a soft ball that his receivers are able to catch, those are some of his strong points,” Baldwin said of his newest Texas import.
“He's calm and has a good plan with each play,” Baldwin said. “I think he's a little more mobile than he might get credit.”
Padron has played in what Baldwin calls “A lot of live situations but this will be his first time playing live bullets within this offense, with our team.” He passed for 5,902 yards and 41 touchdowns in his 24-game SMU career.
In his 21 games as a starter at SMU, the 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound Padron led the Mustangs to a 12-9 record. He was 5-1 as a freshman, as SMU's late-season surge helped the Mustangs beat Nevada 45-10 in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
Padron passed for a school-record 460 yards and two touchdowns to earn Hawaii Bowl MVP honors but in the early part of 2011 suffered ankle and back injuries and was replaced in the lineup by J.J. McDermott, opening the door for Eastern to find an instant replacement to graduating Bo Levi Mitchell.
Idaho will present both knowns and unknowns for Eastern.
“Starting out defensively one of their best players on their football team is (Aaron) Grymes at the corner position,” Baldwin said. There's additional experience on the back end that concerns Baldwin and that talent allows the Vandals to do more up front, he said. “They aren't far off from last year's team.”
Offensively, it's also a mystery.
“Obviously they have a burner in (Juston) Veltung,” Baldwin said. “It's a little more of a mystery. We're going to be prepared to meet a great opponent on that side of the ball as well.”
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.