By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What Eastern Washington star tailback Taiwan Jones didn't say about his foot injury said it all to teammate J.C. Sherritt.
The Eagles' two best players talked on Saturday after their team's 38-31 overtime survival against North Dakota State in the FCS quarterfinals and Jones didn't insist he was fine - as he often does when he's dinged by injuries. Instead, he could barely talk about his left foot.
The news that came later about Jones' foot being broken was a mere formality.
So on Monday when EWU met as a team for the first time since the news, head coach Beau Baldwin didn't plan to make a big deal about the injury. He wants his Eagles to move forward. They have no other choice.
There's never a right time for a serious injury to happen to a top player, but Jones' seemingly couldn't come at a worse time. Ranked second in the FCS in rushing yards and all-purpose yards, and coming off his career high with 230 rushing yards against North Dakota State, the electrifying junior will be relegated to cheerleader for the national semifinal Friday night against 2009 national champion Villanova.
It's a scenario Villanova went through much of this season. If all-purpose threat Matt Szczur had not suffered two high ankle sprains and basically lost seven games because of it, then the Wildcats might have finished the regular season with the No. 1 ranking instead of EWU, and would have enjoyed some home games instead of having to play three straight playoff games far away from their campus, with this week's nearly a coast-to-coast trek.
With Szczur healthy again in the playoffs, both he and Villanova are dominating opponents.
Even with a healthy Jones, it would be hard for EWU to beat the Wildcats. So it's imperative for the Eagles to shake out the cobwebs before kickoff Friday night. They won't fully recover emotionally, but can't be lost in a fog, either.
Perhaps they can learn from Villanova. When Szczur was first injured, Wildcats coach Andy Talley thought his veteran team could get through the injury. But when it became apparent he would be sidelined over twice as long as originally thought, "... that's when I think we sort of hit the wall a little bit. We were like, 'This kid's not going to be playing much for us. We have to get some game-changers in our offense.' We did an OK job, but there were times when the wheels fell off a little bit.
"As soon as Matt came back for the Delaware game (the regular-season finale), you could see what you were missing. And then when we got to Stephen F. Austin and he just took off, then you really saw what you were missing. And then when you watched him against (Appalachian State), the guy's a superstar. He makes all the difference in the world, not only from a morale standpoint, but he's a point-producer and a game-changer. I'm not so sure we would have lost a game (against a FCS opponent) had he played this year."
Part of the responsibility of replacing Szczur's production fell on senior running back Angelo Babbaro, and wide receivers Norman White and Dorian Wells. It was an impossible task, but, Babbaro said, "I think big players love being placed in that situation. I mean any time you're given an opportunity like that, you just have to be ready for it and step into place, and that's kind of what I did earlier in the season."
It's exactly the mindset Jones' backups, true freshman Mario Brown and junior Darriell Beaumonte, have to embrace this week. Recently, Beaumonte has been slowed by an ankle injury, but he scored two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) way back on Oct. 2 against Weber State when Jones was sidelined with a hip contusion, and he was the All-Big Sky Conference return specialist. Brown has raised his play throughout the season and has 214 rushing yards - two less than Beaumonte.
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, receivers Brandon Kaufman and Nicholas Edwards, and plenty of others need to carry more of the load this week as well. They have no other choice.
"Obviously, (Jones is) as big a threat as I've ever seen at this level," Baldwin said. "You probably lose a little bit of that home run threat - you really do. But at the same time, it's not like we're gonna change formations we're getting and plays we're running or schemes. A lot of what we did against Weber State when we didn't have him, and really half of the NAU (Northern Arizona) game when we didn't have him ... it didn't necessarily change in terms of our philosophies and schemes.
"Our team's kind of fallen in love just with the idea that things aren't (always) going great or there's some adverse situations."
That fortitude will be tested the most this week. Eastern Washington's only chance is to move forward, not look backward.