By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Think of Eastern Washington's 0-3 start this way:
Autumn doesn't arrive until Friday and the Eagles have lost one more game than they did all of last season, when they captured their first FCS national title.
Fall and autumn are supposed to mean the same, but apparently (the) fall comes first.
Still, come Saturday, the Eagles plan to rise up one day after autumn begins. They believe a win over Big Sky rival Montana State in their home opener on the red turf in Cheney will trigger a turnaround.
Of course, a win over the FCS' No. 4-ranked Bobcats, a team EWU shared the conference title with last season and lost to in a 30-7 whipping in Bozeman, is a challenge that's seemingly the size of the Big Sky.
"Whenever you start out and you've lost a few and you still haven't had that first victory, it intensifies the situation a little bit," fourth-year head coach Beau Baldwin said Wednesday. "Guys, maybe they're that much more hungry, however you want to look at it. Truly, regardless of our record at this point, this game was gonna be amplified anyway. It's a team that beat us handily last year, it's a team that was co-champs with us last year and it's our first home game."
The schedule in September always looked daunting for EWU, but the preseason No. 1 team - now No. 21 - didn't figure it would lose at Great West member South Dakota in between the Washington season opener and Montana conference opener, to create this dire situation.
While there's a sense of urgency - the Eagles might have to win their final eight games just to get back to the national playoffs - there's also a veteran calmness. Other teams would have pressed the panic button already.
"Most of our guys, it comes from within," Baldwin said. "The leaders on this team do a good job of staying positive, staying the course, understanding and really looking at some of the things we're still doing well - realistically some of the things we're doing a lot better than we did last year at this point."
Statistically, Baldwin calls it "mind-boggling" that the Eagles ran more plays than each of their first three opponents (by 21 plays on average), outgained each of them (by 112 yards on average) and had more first downs in each game (nearly 10 more per game), yet lost each game.
Senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the most outstanding performer in the 2010 FCS title game, has been asked to air the ball out too often while the Eagles struggle to replace running back Taiwan Jones - who left a year early for the NFL - with a stable that now is led by a true freshman, Jordan Talley.
Having thrown an FCS-high 178 passes in three games - 59.3 per game - Mitchell has been intercepted six times. It's led to a minus-six turnover ratio for the Eagles.
"Eastern Washington has a great pass game," Montana State head coach Rob Ash said. "Bo Levi Mitchell is a tremendous player and the receivers are outstanding. It's always a good plan to try to get pressure on any quarterback, but I guess particularly if they are a good one like Bo Levi is and if they have a good scheme. We'll try to mix it up. I mean, it would be nice if we could get four-man pressure, but that's a luxury in this game.
"It will be an academic challenge to find the right thing and then a physical challenge to win some one-on-ones."
Montana State rolled to last year's win with a patched-up offensive line. Defensive tackle Zach Minter intercepted a Mitchell pass in the first quarter and rambled 53 yards for a touchdown. Quarterback DeNarius McGhee ran the offense with precision.
"More than anything, they're solid all the way through," Baldwin said of Montana State. "I think their D-tackles really do a great job of making their defense go and obviously they have a couple experienced linebackers, too, that are very good players.
"Having success against their offense, obviously like any team, you want to be able to stop the run first in most situations. But, obviously, Montana State has a quarterback who can do great things no matter what the situation. He can play from behind and make plays, he can do great things in play-action, he's an all-around great player."
EWU has yet to lose on the red carpet since it was rolled out at Roos Field - going 8-0 there a year ago. They play only four times at home this season, but the schedule turns favorable after Saturday.
Entering the season, the Eagles returned 30 players who had combined on 335 career starts. Their veterans are convinced a win over their rival will change the complexion of their season.
CAA ACTION HEATS UP
As conference games begin to dominate the FCS schedule, the action in CAA Football is particularly strong on Saturday.
Two of the four games matching teams in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 are in the CAA, with No. 5 Richmond (3-0) hosting No. 11 New Hampshire (2-1) and No. 12 James Madison (2-1) going to No. 6 William & Mary (2-1). In another spotlight game, new CAA member Old Dominion (3-0) travels to No. 7 Delaware (2-1), the 2010 national runner-up, for its first-ever conference game.
"It seems like every game in this league goes down to the fourth quarter and I don't expect it to be any different this year than in the past," said Richmond interim head coach Wayne Lineburg, whose team is one of three in the FCS to be 3-0, joining ODU and Jackson State from the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
"There are a lot of good solid football teams. I don't know if anybody has emerged yet as the dominant team. It remains to be seen how that plays out."
Richmond's story is particularly intriguing because the 37-year-old Lineburg didn't take over the coaching reigns until Aug. 23, after Latrell Scott was forced to resign following a drunk-driving arrest.
The Spiders had a lot of returning talent on offense, but its defensive losses included three All-Americas in defensive tackle Martin Parker, linebacker Eric McBride (the 2010 CAA defensive player of the year) and cornerback Justin Rogers. The defense has solidified quickly to rank second in the CAA in both total defense (297.7 ypg) and scoring defense (15.3 ppg).
As expected, inside linebacker Darius McMillan (33 tackles) is playing at a high level, especially against the run. Safeties Colin Pehanick and Cooper Taylor and cornerback Tremayne Graham combine in a talented secondary. Up front, a pair of sophomores, defensive end Kerry Wynn (three sacks) and defensive tackle Evan Kelly, have been particularly solid for a rebuilt line.
"They're playing pretty solid in there," Lineburg said. "There's kids with some good young talent in there that have stepped up. They've been pretty solid so far and I've been pretty pleased with them. We've still got to see if we can keep getting production out of them as far as getting more sacks and those kinds of things."
CAN CHATTANOOGA TAKE THE NEXT STEP?
The other game within the Top 25 is No. 13 Chattanooga (2-1) at No. 3 Appalachian State (2-1) as both teams open Southern Conference play.
Chattanooga is one of the FCS schools that has faced a monster schedule in September. To be 2-1 as they head to Boone, N.C., is a testament to the strength of the Mocs' team. They opened the season with a loss at Nebraska, beat a Top 10 FCS team in Jacksonville State and then won a tricky road game at Eastern Kentucky.
"We actually came out of Nebraska (with) our players feeling pretty confident because we didn't do awful," third-year head coach Russ Huesman said. "We gave up some big plays, but I think we saw that we have the ability to come off of blocks, we can cover some people. So we actually felt some confidence coming out of that game.
"But every week is different. Just because we beat Eastern Kentucky doesn't mean we'll be ready to play in Boone. Boone will be a completely different environment."
Chattanooga has its highest ranking since 1992. The Mocs have played ASU five times when they have been nationally ranked, and lost each time.
It will be hard for Chattanooga and Appalachian State to surpass last year's season-opening game. The Mountaineers rallied from a 35-14 fourth-quarter deficit for a 42-41 win at Chattanooga.
NEC OFF AND RUNNING
Bryant junior running back Jordan Brown might have thought he had the Northeast Conference Offensive Player of the Week honor sewed up after he rushed for 248 yards, gained 334 all-purpose yards and scored a touchdown in last Friday's 26-6 win over Sacred Heart.
Then St. Francis (Pa.) junior Kyle Harbridge came along to gain 346 rushing yards, 457 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in a 50-49 thriller over Morehead State.
Expect big rushing performances in the NEC this season, especially when the weather turns nasty. The NEC returned a lot of veteran quarterbacks, but it's a conference that is featuring four of the 10 best rushing averages in the FCS: Harbridge (No. 1, 180.3 ypg); Brown (165.7 ypg - provisional team not in the official NCAA rankings); Duquesne junior Larry McCoy (No. 6, 129.7 ypg); and Wagner sophomore Dominique Williams (No. 9, 122 ypg).
FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION ...
Once again this season, In the FCS Huddle is projecting the potential FCS playoff field. The projections are a long-range look at the season - not based off current records or rankings - and can be found at here.
AROUND THE NATION
The American Football Coaches Association will hold its fourth annual Coach to Cure MD effort at this week's games. To help support research on muscular dystrophy, fans can donate online at www.CoachtoCureMD.org or donate $5 by texting CURE to 90999 ... Lafayette heads to Stony Brook, Missouri State visits Southern Illinois, Savannah State goes to North Carolina Central and New Hampshire visits Richmond - the only four teams not to play on their campus in September. Each will play its home opener next Saturday, Oct. 1 ... After what St. Francis' Harbridge did against Sacred Heart last week, don't doubt that Dartmouth senior tailback Nick Schwieger (2,015 career rushing yards) can get the 238 yards he needs to surpass Al Rosier as the Big Green's all-time rushing leader ... Bucknell and Princeton will play each other for the first time since 1996. Back then, Bucknell head coach Joe Susan was an assistant coach for Princeton ... Colgate All-America running back Nate Eachus, the 2010 FCS rushing champion, is expected to miss his second straight game - Saturday at Towson - due to an undisclosed injury ... North Dakota State takes an impressive 4-3 record against FBS opponents to Minnesota on Saturday. The last time the Bison faced the Gophers in 2007, they pulled a 27-21 upset ... Sacramento State is a not-so-sweet 0-16 all-time against Montana. Saturday's meeting in Sacramento had long looked to be the Hornets' shot at an upset, but they are going to have to defend the run better, and the Grizzlies are pretty diversified on the ground with quarterback Jordan Johnson and tailbacks Peter Nguyen and Jordan Canada ... Tennessee State will play an FBS opponent for the second time when it visits Air Force on Saturday. The Tigers' only other FBS game was in 2006, when they remained within Nashville, Tenn., city limits and lost to Vanderbilt, 38-9 ... Murray State quarterback Casey Brockman, coming off a 600-yard passing performance, goes up against UT Martin on Thursday. The Skyhawks have surrendered an Ohio Valley Conference-low 135.5 passing yards per game ... The Southland Conference has had three teams appear in each of the first four Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 polls (including the preseason) and their rankings have all been between 16 and 23 ... Former Southland member Texas State, which is transitioning out of the FCS as an independent this season, will visit two-time defending Southland champion Stephen F. Austin on Saturday. Texas State won last year's game to extend its series lead to 55-29-1. The Bobcats will keep SFA on their schedule next year when they join the Western Athletic Conference ... Central Arkansas football may be facing an extended period of time without starting quarterback Nathan Dick after he suffered concussions in the Bears' last two games. He leads the conference in passing yards per game (259) ... You would expect Georgia Southern or Wofford to have the top rushing offense in the Southern Conference, but it belongs to The Citadel's triple option. The Bulldogs' 317 rushing yards per game ranks second to Portland State in the FCS. Wouldn't you know Wofford and Georgia Southern rank No. 3 and 4 in the nation, respectively ... In his career, senior kicker Adrian Mora of top-ranked Georgia Southern is 107 of 107 on PAT attempts. He needs two more field goals to match Tim Foley's career record of 50 from 1984-87 ... Norfolk State senior kicker Ryan Estep is off to an 8-for-8 start on field-goal attempts ... Liberty two-time first-team All-America kicker Matt Bevins, only 14 points shy of tying the Big South career record, was injured against James Madison last weekend. Redshirt freshman Alex Kacere was 3-for-3 on PATs and connected on a 24-yard field goal ... Butler senior wide receiver Zach Watkins is three receptions shy of 200 in his career ... Talk about a difference in opponents, four of the five Great West members - Cal Poly (Northern Illinois), South Dakota (Wisconsin), Southern Utah (UNLV) and UC Davis (Hawaii) - will all get paydays against FBS opponents on Saturday, while North Dakota hosts NAIA member Black Hills State ... Jackson State isn't eligible for the SWAC Championship Game because of APR penalties, but the Tigers want to show they have the best team in the East Division when defending champion Alabama State pays a visit on Saturday. Alabama State won last year's game, 32-30 ... Arkansas Pine-Bluff sophomore linebacker Jer-ryan Harris is expected to sit for the third time in four games when the Golden Lions play Clark Atlanta in St. Louis on Saturday. The Golden Lions hope to get the 2010 SWAC tackler leader back from a hamstring injury for their next conference game, Oct. 1 at Alabama A&M.
JUST THE PICKS
Last Week's Record: 57-11 (.838)
Season Record: 188-41 (.821)
All Times EST
Thursday, Sept. 22
X-No. 24 Murray State (2-1, 1-0 OVC) at UT Martin (1-1, 0-1), 7 p.m.
Hampton (2-1, 1-0 MEAC) at X-Bethune-Cookman (1-1, 0-1), 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 23
Brown (1-0, 0-0 Ivy) at X-Harvard (0-1, 0-0), 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 24
Cornell (1-0, 0-0 Ivy) at X-Yale (1-0, 0-0), noon
Monmouth (1-1, 0-0 NEC) at X-Central Connecticut State (2-1, 1-0), noon
Old Dominion (3-0, 0-0 CAA) at X-No. 7 Delaware (2-1, 0-0), noon
X-Albany (0-2) at Columbia (0-1), 12:30 p.m.
Liberty (1-2) at X-No. 15 Lehigh (2-1), 12:30 p.m.
X-San Diego (2-1, 0-0 PFL) at Morehead State (1-2, 0-0), 12:30 p.m.
No. 17 Massachusetts (2-0) at X-Boston College (0-3), 1 p.m.
Fordham (1-1) at X-Rhode Island (0-2), 1 p.m.
X-Dartmouth (1-0) at Sacred Heart (0-2), 1 p.m.
X-Drake (2-1, 0-0 PFL) at Butler (2-1, 0-0), 1 p.m.
X-Georgetown (2-1) at Marist (1-2), 1 p.m.
X-Wagner (1-2, 1-1 NEC) at Bryant (2-1, 1-0), 1 p.m.
X-Jacksonville (1-2, 0-0 PFL) at Campbell (1-1, 0-0), 1 p.m.
Presbyterian (1-2) at X-Furman (1-1), 1 p.m.
X-Dayton (2-1) at Central State (0-3), 1:30 p.m.
X-Norfolk State (2-1) at Charleston Southern (0-3), 1:30 p.m.
The Citadel (1-1, 0-1) SoCon) at X-Elon (2-1, 0-0), 1:30 p.m.
VMI (0-3) at X-Akron (0-3), 2 p.m.
Delaware State (2-1, 0-0 MEAC) at X-No. 25 South Carolina State (1-2, 1-0), 2 p.m.
Bacone College (0-3) at X-UTSA (1-2), 2 p.m.
Alcorn State (1-2, 1-2 SWAC) at X-Texas Southern (1-1, 0-1), 2 p.m.
Portland State (2-0) at X-TCU (2-1), 2 p.m.
Youngstown State (2-1, 1-0 MVFC) at X-Indiana State (2-1, 0-0), 2:05 p.m.
Tennessee State (1-2) at X-Air Force (1-1), 3 p.m.
Morgan State (1-2, 0-0) at X-Howard (1-2, 0-1) at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., 3:30 p.m.
X-Florida A&M (1-2) at Southern (1-2) at Georgia Dome in Atlanta, 3:30 p.m.
South Alabama (2-1) at X-Kent State (0-3), 3:30 p.m.
South Dakota (2-1) at X-Wisconsin (3-0), 3:30 p.m.
No. 11 New Hampshire (1-1, 0-0 CAA) at X-No. 5 Richmond (3-0, 0-0), 3:30 p.m.
Cal Poly (1-2) at X-Northern Illinois (1-2), 3:30 p.m.
X-No. 13 Chattanooga (2-1, 0-0 SoCon) at No. 3 Appalachian State (2-1, 0-0), 3:30 p.m.
X-Weber State (1-2, 1-0 Big Sky) at Northern Colorado (0-3, 0-1), 3:35 p.m.
X-Coastal Carolina (2-1) at North Carolina A&T (1-1), 4 p.m.
X-Northwestern State (1-2, 0-0 Southland) at Nicholls State (1-2, 0-0), 4 p.m.
Clark Atlanta (2-1) at X-Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2-1) at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, 4 p.m.
Western Illinois (1-2, 0-0 MVFC) at X-No. 2 Northern Iowa (1-1, 0-0), 5 p.m.
Alabama State (2-1, 2-0 SWAC) at X-Jackson State (3-0, 1-0), 5 p.m.
Alabama A&M (1-2, 0-1 SWAC) at X-Grambling State (1-2, 1-1), 6 p.m.
Western Carolina (1-1, 0-0 SoCon) at X-No. 1 Georgia Southern (2-0, 1-0), 6 p.m.
X-No. 20 Sam Houston State (2-0) at New Mexico (0-3), 6 p.m.
Bucknell (2-1) at X-Princeton (0-1), 6 p.m.
Lafayette (1-2) at X-Stony Brook (0-3), 6 p.m.
Savannah State (0-3, 0-0 MEAC) at X-North Carolina Central (1-2, 0-0), 6 p.m.
Penn (0-1) at X-Villanova (0-3) at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, 6 p.m.
X-Idaho State (2-1, 1-0 Big Sky) at Northern Arizona (1-2, 0-1), 6:05 p.m.
Mississippi Valley State (0-3, 0-2 SWAC) at X-Prairie View A&M (1-2, 1-1), 7 p.m.
Black Hills State (1-3) at X-North Dakota (1-2), 7 p.m.
Missouri State (0-3, 0-0 MVFC) at X-No. 14 Southern Illinois (1-1, 0-0), 7 p.m.
North Dakota State (2-0) at X-Minnesota (1-2), 7 p.m.
Colgate (1-2) at X-Towson (2-0), 7 p.m.
X-Duquesne (2-1, 0-0 NEC) at St. Francis, Pa. (1-2, 0-1), 7 p.m.
X-Eastern Kentucky (1-2, 0-0 OVC) at Austin Peay (0-2, 0-0), 7 p.m.
Samford (1-1, 0-1 SoCon) at X-No. 9 Wofford (1-1, 0-0), 7 p.m.
No. 12 James Madison (2-1, 0-0 CAA) at X-No. 6 William & Mary (2-1, 0-0), 7 p.m.
Eastern Illinois (1-2, 0-1 OVC) at X-No. 16 Jacksonville State (2-1, 1-0), 7 p.m.
Texas State (1-2) at X-No. 22 Stephen F. Austin (1-2), 7 p.m.
South Dakota State (1-2, 0-0 MVFC) at X-Illinois State (1-2, 0-1), 7 p.m.
Johnson C. Smith (2-1) at X-Davidson (1-1), 7 p.m.
X-No. 4 Montana State (2-1, 0-0 Big Sky) at No. 21 Eastern Washington (0-3, 0-1), 7:05 p.m.
Central Arkansas (1-2) at X-Arkansas State (1-2), 8 p.m.
Southeastern Louisiana (1-2, 0-0 Southland) at X-No. 19 McNeese State (1-1, 0-0), 8 p.m.
Georgia State (1-2) at X-Houston (3-0), 8 p.m.
Southeast Missouri State (0-2, 0-0 OVC) at X-Tennessee Tech (2-1, 1-0), 8 p.m.
No. 23 Southern Utah (2-1) at X-UNLV (1-2), 9 p.m.
X-No. 10 Montana (2-1, 1-0 Big Sky) at Sacramento State (1-2, 0-1), 9:05 p.m.
UC Davis (1-2) at X-Hawaii (1-2), midnight