By PAUL DELANEY
The pedigree of the Eastern Washington University football team has always generally been its offense.
But somewhat quietly last Thursday night it was the Eagles' defense that paved the way for Eastern to score a 20-3 season opening victory over the University of Idaho at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.
Holding the Western Athletic Conference Vandals to just 237 yards – 164 through the air and a paltry 73 on the ground – the Eastern “D” helped secure the school's first win over a Football Bowl Division opponent in 10 years, the last coming versus Idaho in Moscow by an 8-5 score in 2003.
Eastern, 1-0 and ranked No. 9 in the most recent Sports Network Football Championship Subdivision top-25 poll, returns to the Palouse this Saturday, Sept. 8 when the Eagles play at Washington State in a noon start at Martin Stadium. It's the first meeting of varsity teams between the two schools since 1908 when Washington State College rolled to a 73-0 win. The game is televised on the Pac-12 Network.
After bending on Idaho's second possession and surrendering a 66-yard pass and run by Najee Lovett that took the Vandals as deep as Eastern's eight, the defense held, allowing Idaho just a Trey Farquhar 27-yard field goal.
Eastern would respond on the next drive to tie with a 34-yard Jimmy Pavel field goal – the key play a 58-yard Kyle Padron pass to Brandon Kaufman – and the Eagles just ground it out from there.
Kaufman, injured much of 2011 and the recipient of an additional redshirt season, finished with five catches for 148 yards.
While the slow-starting Eastern offense chipped off the early-season rust, the Eagle's defense ground down the hapless Vandal offense.
Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin led the way for the defense with eight tackles and a pass broken up for the Eagles. Sixth-year linebacker Zach Johnson added six tackles. Cornerback Ronald Baines later had a diving interception that led to a 28-yard Pavel field goal in the third quarter giving Eastern a 13-3 lead with 6:57 left in the third.
“For us to give up a big play, OK, how are we going to respond to that?” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “And we did by holding them to a field goal; in a weird way that was great momentum for us.”
Sure enough, as the teams passed into the second quarter, Idaho was forced to punt and on the ensuing possession Padron, a junior transfer out of Southern Methodist, connected with Nicholas Edwards for 31 yards to the Vandal 33. The pass was underthrown and Edwards had to double back to make the grab.
Greg Herd took an end around and ran the ball to the Idaho 18 and three plays later Padron found Jake Whitehall for a 3-yard touchdown play and a 10-3 lead with 12:29 to go in the half. Padron completed 13-of-33 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown in his Eastern debut.
“We knew all week that was going to be a tough game,” Padron said. “We fought some adversity early.”
Padron admitted to having a slow start on offense. “If we're not picking it up we know the defense is going to back us up and we're going to back them up.”
He told Zach Johnson before the second half that they needed a turnover. “Two series in they got us a turnover,” Padron said.
“Without watching film I thought he handled himself beautifully,” Baldwin said of Padron.
Padron just found a way to grind, his coach said. “We didn't put 35 (points) on the board but we moved the ball when we needed to, we were smart when we needed to, we know our defense was playing so well and he just handled every situation.”
The Eagles put the game out of reach and emptied much of the Kibbie Dome crowd of 11,136 when Quincy Forte completed a clock-eating 11-play, 65-yard Eastern drive that consumed 4:17 with his 2-yard touchdown run with 12:49 remaining. Forte, with 66 yards on 17 carries and Jordan Talley, who chipped in another 63 yards, led a re-emmerging Eastern ground game that netted 152 yards on 40 plays.
Baldwin said the running game will be crucial to any true team success.
“It was one of those deals where we talked about last year, the ability to finish ballgames better,” Baldwin said of the apparent spark in the running game. “Last year we weren't balanced enough to finish; this year we made a serious effort in the off season about what are we going to do to be more balanced.”
Baldwin also spoke to how the defense helped complement and make the offense more successful.
“You can't just go on 80-play drives every time so when your defense can create field position by either stuffing them down deep and forcing a shank punt, the pick by Ronald (Baines), whatever it might be you get those types of situations and your defense is keeping the field position in your favor, it's huge,” Baldwin said.
There's also the importance and rarity of coming out with a win on the road in the season opener.
“We weren't 1-0 in either 2010 or 2011, not since '09 so it's really great, to do it on the road too,” Baldwin said. “I can't remember when we went on the road and won our first ballgame.” For the record, that would be 2001 with a 35-17 victory at Connecticut.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.
Eastern Washington Eagles at Washington State UniversitySaturday, Sept. 8, noon, Martin Stadium (33,522) • Pullman, Wash,TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 700-AM ESPN in Spokane. Larry Weir returns for his 22nd season calling the play-by-play, with analysis handled by Paul Sorensen and sideline commentary by Keith Osso. Osso will also serve as host of the Eagle Tailgate Show, starting 1 1/2 hours prior to kickoff. Internet Radio: www.700espn.com or www.tunein.com. Radio iPhone App: Search for “Spokane Radio” and download app. An app is also available for tunein radio. Webcast: http://www.wsucougars.com/allaccess/. Live Stats: http://www.wsucougars.com/ot/wast-gametracker.html. Watch Parties: All road games will be available to watch at the Q Sports Bar and Restaurant at Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights and the Swinging Doors in North Spokane. Weekly Coaches Show: Mondays 6 p.m. at the Q Sports Bar and Restaurant at Northern Quest Resort & Casino. . . 700-AM ESPN, www.700espn.com and via iphone app. (search for “Spokane Radio” and download app).