For the third straight year, Eastern Washington's football has earned the number one ranking in the nation. In 2010 it happened at the end of the season, in 2011 it happened to start of the season, and now in 2012 it's happened after eight weeks of the season.
Obviously, that number one ranking only matters at the end of the year, but right now this team will take it. They're doing it with all phases of the game. When you look at their toughest wins against Montana and Montana State, the defense and special teams shined. At home with Montana, it was the defense holding the Grizzlies to just a field goal in the 4th quarter. Then in the final minutes, we saw one of the best onside kicks ever, which Eastern recovered and then led to the game-winning touchdown. Against MSU, down 17-13, the offense stayed on the sideline while the Eagles scored two touchdowns in about a minute span. There was a huge blocked punt which Evan Day recovered for a touchdown, and then it was followed up by a big pick six by Jordan Tonani that gave Eastern a commanding 27-17 lead. These were two plays that completely swung the game in EWU's favor.
This team isn't perfect, but they're fun to watch. Let's not forget they're doing this all with a quarterback by committee plan. Beau Baldwin said last week that's simply comes from being a balanced team. The quarterback doesn't have to be perfect with the players surrounding Vernon and Kyle and the way this team plays.
We can brag about Eastern all we want, but all this seems even more exciting because we actually have a team to be excited about. It's tough to be a fan of the Palouse right now, with the way Idaho and Washington State have looked. No one knows the pains of this more than former Vandal Head Coach Robb Akey who was fired on Sunday. Combined Idaho and Washington State have just three wins this year. Midway through the season, the scoring margin for WSU is -65 and for Idaho it's even worse at -199. Vandals fans already know this, but for the Cougars it's going to take more than one season to turn that ship around.
In a sports culture that asks what have you done for me lately, both teams can't say much, and that's part of why Akey is out.
Whitworth has been a bright spot in our area as well this year, with the Bucs starting out 5-0. However, it seems like conference play has brought them back down to reality. They're still one of the better teams to watch, and one of the more fun venues to see a game, but they aren't quite to the level of Eastern.
So of the four main teams in our area, Eastern is the light in the darkness. Yes, it's Division I-AA, but number one is number one. We've seen what this team can do when they have a balanced team, but I don't think anyone expected them to be this good.
They're not a perfect team and they still have plenty to work on. With Coach Baldwin's experience and a team full of seniors who won a national title just two years ago, this idea of staying number one isn't too far fetched.
I'm not guaranteeing a national title, and I don't think anyone in Eastern's camp would say that, or at least not to us. For the time being though, Eastern is giving football fans hope in our area when there's plenty of reason to be down.