Eastern Washington, which plays at UC Davis tonight, hasn’t become one of the nation’s best Football Championship Subdivision teams because of the attractive amenities in Cheney, Wash.
“It’s just a little country town with a Safeway and a McDonald’s,” said Sacramento State coach Jody Sears, who was an assistant at the school from 2000 to 2007. “I think they do have a Taco Bell now.”
In fact, Cheney, a town of 11,000 that swells to nearly 24,000 when school is in session, has a handful of other fast-food establishments these days.
But Sears says the school’s out-of-the-way location (Spokane is 17 miles away) combined with a history of football success – the Eagles won the 2010 FCS championship – has made it one of the most formidable programs in the country behind seventh-year coach Beau Baldwin.
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“The program has been able to explode,” said Sears, who worked with Baldwin when both were assistants to Woodland native Paul Wulff at Eastern Washington. “Beau is a great coach, and he has a great staff.
“But that team also has great leadership out of the locker room, and Beau’s been able to capitalize on that. Winning has become a part of their culture. And because of where the school is located, it only strengthens that bond, the team chemistry, because they do everything together.”
Eastern Washington comes to Davis for the Big Sky Conference opener ranked No. 2 in the nation and featuring one of the most explosive offenses, regardless of level.
The Eagles (3-1) rallied in the final 27 seconds to beat Big Sky opponent Montana State 52-51 in a nonconference matchup last Saturday. The week before, Washington held off the Eagles 59-52, despite seven touchdown passes by their gifted junior quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.
Eastern Washington, riding a 10-game Big Sky Conference winning streak, leads all FCS schools in passing offense (389.5 yards per game) and red-zone offense (100 percent, 19 of 19), and is second in scoring offense (50.3 points) and total offense (590.5 yards).
“They are the Big Sky champions the last two years, and that’s something you earn,” said UCD coach Ron Gould. “They can score from anywhere and have so many weapons. We’ve got to make sure we tackle and bring a lot of guys to the party.”
Adams, who Gould calls “a special guy” and not just for his football talents, is a strong candidate for the Walter Payton Award, given every season to the FCS MVP.
Running back Quincy Forte from Vacaville High is coming off Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors after rushing for 190 yards and four touchdowns against Montana State.
Sophomore wide receiver Cooper Kupp leads the FCS in touchdown catches with six and is fifth in receptions with 32.
While this is Eastern Washington’s first trip to Davis, the Aggies have played three times in Cheney, including 2012, when they lost 31-28 in 30-degree weather on the Eagles’ red turf called “The Inferno.”
The Aggies are looking for a confidence-builder after struggling in a 45-0 loss at No. 16 Stanford and falling 49-21 to Colorado State.
“Eastern Washington has a great program, but there’s always a chance,” fullback Dalton Turay said of producing an upset. “We can’t worry about who we are playing. We’ve just got to focus on what we’re doing and our game plan. If we do that, we can beat anybody.”
Gould wants to see more consistency and better tackling, especially if senior free safety Charles Boyett has to miss his second consecutive game with an ankle injury.
“A lot of it comes back to basic fundamental football,” Gould said.
Despite the Aggies’ slow start, Baldwin believes the Eagles could be in for a battle.
“The thing that jumps out to me is their physicality,” said Baldwin, 59-23 as the Eagles’ coach. “...They come downhill, and they hit you in the mouth. The best compliment I can say is it’s very similar to when you watch Stanford on TV.”
The Aggies’ 2013 rushing leader, Gabe Manzanares (1,285 yards, 10 touchdowns), who missed the first two games of this season with injury and carried six times for 12 yards against Colorado State, is expected to have a bigger role tonight.
But Gould has been satisfied with his running-back-by-committee approach, which has produced 155.7 rushing yards a game.
Senior Colton Silveria, the Aggies’ rushing leader as a sophomore, has re-established himself as the starter, while redshirt freshman Justin Williams and true freshman Jermale Jefferson also have excelled.
“The guys understand it doesn’t matter who is running the ball,” Gould said. “Whoever it is, we don’t expect the bar to fall off.”