Will’s World: EWU: The unsung rivalry

In a way we had gotten exactly what we wished for. That wasn’t comforting for us, as in retrospect the eight hour, 500 mile journey from Chester to Cheney was going to seem longer on the way back.

Sitting in the end zone seating of Eastern Washington’s Ross Field in 2005, before it was painted red to resemble an Exodus-era Nile River, we quietly mused amongst ourselves how nice it would be if the two teams managed to play most of the game’s action near our seats. After such a long journey, Dad, Michael and I were thrilled, as happy as we were to be there, with the idea of squinting to comprehend the action downfield. This was to be a pivotal matchup, as this was effectively an elimination game for both schools. The game featured two of the conference’s most accomplished quarterbacks, seniors Travis Lulay and Erik Meyer, of Montana State and Eastern Washington respectively.

The pregame hoopla turned out to be all for naught, as the Eagles gave us exactly what we had asked for. After the Bobcats scored the game’s opening touchdown at the far end zone to begin the 2nd quarter, the Eagles scored five unanswered touchdowns right in our end zone, effectively turning what had been such a hyped game into a bloodbath not dissimilar to the color of the current field, winning 35-14. This game effectively set the end date for the Lulay era, as the Cats were able to salvage the season with a victory over the Griz to end the season, but missed the playoffs as a result of their loss in Cheney.

It is games like this that underscore the underappreciated rivalry between the Cats and the Eagles. Both schools recognize this, which is why they are playing each other this Saturday in Cheney in what will technically be a non-conference matchup. With the 2012 additions of North Dakota, Southern Utah, Cal-Poly and UC Davis, the Big Sky Conference had a daunting task with its 13-member conference. They had to ensure near-equal playing opportunities against all conference opponents, while trying to preserve the conference’s historic rivalries.

As a result, the Big Sky set up a league schedule where each team would play two conference “rivals” every year, and rotate conference opponents for the remaining six games. This system was not embraced by all, notably Bobcat Head Coach Rob Ash, as a number of rivalry games would be lost. The Cats were obviously paired with the Griz, there would have been a riot otherwise. But the University of North Dakota was rather lonely over in eastern North Dakota, and the Bobcats were the natural choice to be one of their rivals (the other is Northern Colorado). In turn, Montana State’s less celebrated rivalries with fellow conference founders Idaho State and Weber State were lost.

Yet Eastern Washington also saw fit, as the Cats did, to continue their young, unique rivalry. From a practical standpoint it certainly makes sense —the majority of FCS schools west of the Mississippi are Big Sky members, and non-conference opponents are hard to schedule.

But for the Bobcats, playing the Eagles has been a difficult experience. The Cats are 2-10 against the Eagles since 2003, 10-28 overall. The last three games have been especially cruel to the Cats. There was 2012, when the Cats thoroughly outplayed the Eagles but were on the wrong end of a 27-24 score thanks to a blocked punt and interception, both of which were returned for touchdowns. There was 2013, when the Eagles offense led by Vernon Adams, now with Oregon, scored a touchdown on literally every possession in a 54-29 Eagles victory. There was last year, when the Bobcats surprisingly had the Eagles on the ropes late in the 4th quarter with a fourth and ten. A stop would have won the game, but Adams completed a 40-yard pass that led to the touchdown and game-winning two point conversion.

But no matchup was as gut wrenching as 2004. Similar to 2005 both teams were playing in an elimination game, but the Bobcats had the 31-10 early in the 3rd quarter. The Eagles rallied and tied the game at 37, but Lulay and the Cats responded with the go-ahead touchdown with 1:17 left. This was enough time for the Eagles to tie the game, and win in overtime, eliminating the Cats from playoff contention.

Despite these setbacks, one of the Bobcats most memorable wins in recent memory came against the Eagles in 2010, DeNarius McGhee’s freshman year. The Cats excised the demons of the then seven game losing streak and put together arguably the most complete performance seen at Bobcat Stadium over the past years, defeating the Eagles 34-7. Unfortunately the Cats national championship hopes ended prematurely and the national championship was won … by the Eagles.

This year the Cats have reason to be optimistic. The Cats’ high-flying offense that went pound-for-pound with the Eagles last year returns nearly all of their starters. The Cats defense may be what decides the game, as nearly all of the starters from last year’s 119th out of 121 ranked pass defense graduated. With their quarterback transferred to Oregon, the Eagles are 0-2, though those losses came at FBS powerhouse Oregon and at FCS powerhouse Northern Iowa, respectable losses all things considered.  Eastern Washington’s wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the Big Sky’s preseason offensive MVP, will be a considerable test for the Bobcats young defense.

Despite the heartbreaking losses and setbacks, it is important that the Cats and Eagles keep their rivalry alive by scheduling non-conference games like these, especially in an age where conference realignment has ended many of college football’s storied rivalries. Hopefully this time around, we will truly get what we wish for.