First off a couple of facts about the school itself. Eastern was founded in 1882, eight years before our beloved Washington State University, and was originally called the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy. The school's motto is; Start Something Big. Whether or not they've lived up to that, probably depends on your definition of big. In terms of athletics the Eagles attempt to do a couple things as well as WSU. Their primary color is a shade of red and they tried, (but failed) to copy the style of our logo. We also share a former football coach, although they probably have fonder memories of him than we do. On the field Eastern reached its program's apex in 2010 by taking home the programs only national championship, winning a thriller against Delaware in the title game. That Eagle's team, however, looked a lot different than the one that will be coming to Martin in seven months. Let's take a look!
First off there are not any team recruiting rankings for FCS teams, that I could find. If anybody has found some, please link it in the comments, I'd love to see who took the time to do it. In terms of notable recruits there is really, just former WSU commit Jordan Pulu. The Federal Way product originally committed to Paul Wulff, but de-committed after was hired. Pulu also turned down an offer from Wyoming to play with his brother, ex-Husky Andrew Pulu. Their isn't much to say about the rest of the players beyond Head Coach Beau Baldwin's typical coach on signing day; gushing over each player. You can read his remarks, and a quick bio on each commit here. The Eagles signed 20 recruits total, the positional breakdown is below.
Class Breakdown: QB: 1, RB: 2, WR: 2, TE: 0, OL: 3, DL: 2, LB: 3, CB: 2, S: 4, Specialists: 0
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell leaves Cheney as an Eagles legend after leading the Eagles high flying attack the last two seasons and leading the school to it's only national title. Bo Levi was nearly a WSU legend as well until he was intercepted in the end zone of Husky Stadium by Desmond Trufant while trying to cap a 10 point comeback for the Eagles in the closing minutes. Instead Mr. Mitchell is now just a hilarious footnote in Cougar history, by virtue of throwing four interceptions for SMU against the Cougs. His second half collapse allowed the Cougs to rally from two scores down in the fourth quarter to eventually win in OT for their only win of the 2009 season. After that game Mitchell was benched by June Jones for Kyle Padron and after the season Mitchell transferred to Eastern.
Last season Mitchell completed over 63% of his passes for 4009 yards and 33 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. Head Coach Beau Baldwin said last week Junior Anthony Vitto will be the number one quarterback for Spring ball. The other QBs in the mix to replace Mitchell are RS freshman Vernon Adams and incoming freshman Bowe Merin.
The 2011 Season:
Coming off their championship run in 2010 the Eagles were ranked #1 in the FCS before the season. They looked primed to live up to their lofty ranking early nearly knocking off UW. However massive amounts of injuries hit the Eagles and forced EWU to start 46(!) different players over the course of the season. An incredible 21 players made their starting debut in '11. Those injuries combined with the rugged, by FCS standards, Big Sky schedule caught up with the Eagles and they stumbled to an 0-4 start before finishing a respectable but disappointing 6-5.
The bad news for WSU is according to Coach Baldwin the Eagles expect to be fully healthy by Fall and return 16 players starters, eight on each side of the ball in 2012. The returners include their top 3 rushers, receivers and tacklers from the 2011 campaign.
Beau Baldwin returns for his fifth season as the Eagles head man. Baldwin, of course replaced Paul Wulff, and has done a great job building on the success Wulff had in Cheney. Before taking the reins Baldwin was the head coach at Central Washington for one season, 2007 and was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Eastern under Wulff from 2003-2006.
Offensively the Eagles ran a pass heavy spread offense in 2011. Last season 14 players caught passes for EWU and six caught 30 or more passes. At this point I'm not sure if the Eagles will be as pass heavy in 2012 as current number one QB Vitto only attempted 4 passes last season.
Defensively Eastern plays a fairly traditional 4-3 stack, under fourth year defensive coordinator John Graham. Graham spent 13 seasons at Central Washington before coming to Cheney with Baldwin in 2008.
Yes the Eagles are an FCS team, and yes this is a game WSU should win going away. However, the Eagles should not be confused with the Idaho State Bengals who came to town in 2011. Eastern is a very good FCS program with pretty good talent and pretty good coaches. The good news for WSU is they will be playing a quarterback making just his second start ever and EWU didn't run the ball much in 2011 either. On defense they have experience but they don't possess the athletes to slow down WSU offensively. Ultimately this is a game where it would make a lot of mistakes for the Eagles to keep it close until the end. This one isn't a lock for WSU, but you won't find anything closer to one on the WSU schedule in 2012.