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August 29, 2013

Eagles looking to knock off Oregon State

The headline splashed across Eastern Washington's game notes sums up the Eagles' feelings perfectly heading into Saturday afternoon's season opener at Oregon State: "Eagles Hoping to Make Believers Out of Beavers."

The Division I-AA (FCS) school has come agonizingly close to knocking off Washington and Washington State in the past two years, but have fallen by three (30-27) and four (24-20) points respectively. In both games, EWU had possession of the ball in the closing minutes with a chance to win the game.

Ranked No. 4 in Sports Network preseason FCS poll and coming off a semifinal appearance in the national playoffs, Eastern Washington would like nothing better than knocking off a Pac-12 opponent on the opening weekend of the college football season.

Sure, it wouldn't quite reach the same plateau of Appalachian State stunning Michigan in the Big House - the mother of all college football upsets - but EWU head coach Beau Baldwin would take a breakthrough victory against a Pac-12 school anyway he can get it, and so would his players, who should arrive in Corvallis with a chip on their shoulders that has existed since recruiting.

"I love being in those environments competing, fighting and putting it all out there and our players love it too," Baldwin said this week. "Our guys grew up hoping to get recruited by a Pac-12 school, so when they get a chance at Eastern Washington to play a team from that conference, they want to show that they are right there with them. For us to go to a Pac-12 stadium is an opportunity."

EWU is 0-9 all-time against Pac-12 schools, including a 56-17 loss to the Beavers in 2006, but the confident Eagles believe the narrow setbacks to their larger Evergreen State rivals in 2011 and 2012 proves they've closed the gap, as well as learning how to deal with the noise inside Pac-12 stadium.

EWU's home stadium in Cheney, Wash. seats only 8,000, so Reser Stadium is approximately six times bigger and considerably louder.

"We've tried to put our players in situations at camp where they are stressed and they are a little on edge, so by the time they reach Corvallis they don't feel (the pressure) as much," Baldwin said. "There is nothing that can replace being in a hostile crowd in a Pac-12 stadium against a great team like Oregon State, but you do everything you can during the week to try to create those high-stress situations."

With eight players who previously spent time on Pac-12 rosters, the Eagles possess selected upper level Division I talent. The most notable name is UCLA transfer Tevin McDonald, a hard-hitting safety with 135 tackles in 27 career games (24 starts) for the Bruins. In addition, offensive tackle Jake Rodgers started all 12 games at Washington State last year, while running back Demitrius Bronson and Andru Pulu both saw action previously at Washington.

After facing Oregon State, Eastern Washington travels to Toledo and has a rematch with national runner-up Sam Houston State. By the time the Big Sky schedule starts, EWU should be more than ready.

"Our team can't wait to play FBS schools," Baldwin said. "There is a common theme for us to have a tough, difficult beginning to the season. For a lot of teams at out level, that is common. Our players are excited about the challenge at Oregon State."

After dividing snaps last season, this year's EWU offense is built around sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who threw for 1,961 yards and completed 60.9 percent of his passes while running for 342 yards last season, drawing comparisons with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson since both signal callers are similar in stature and playing style.

"He has taken a leadership role," Baldwin said of Adams, who ranked fourth in FCS in passing efficiency (160.80) as a redshirt freshman. "He progresses every day in camp, and he is getting better. He is going to be hard on himself. He may end up with a great stat line, but he will think he should have been better or he should have done something else.

"I love that about him. He is never satisfied. He has stepped up as a leader. I have watched him inspire people even when the situation doesn't go great. That is the definition of a leader."

Adams will throw to an entirely new crop of wide receivers in 2013 as the Eagles lost three starting wide receivers to graduation, all of whom earned All-America accolades and had 1,000-yard seasons at some point in their careers.

The top returning receiver is senior Ashton Clark, who has 83 catches for 1,091 yards and nine touchdowns in his career. He finished the 2012 season third on the team with 49 grabs for 650 yards and five scores.

"You could see the production spread out more," Baldwin said. "I could see it spread out to six guys instead of one guy with 90 catches like Brandon Kaufman (in 2012). We have already adjusted some things to their strengths. Some of it may be more underneath than over the top. But if the defense thinks we are not going over the top, then that is what they are going to be giving us. No matter who we have on the field, we can go over the top."

All of EWU's best running backs return in 2013 as the Eagles look to continue the improvement shown in the ground game in 2012 when they ranked 90th in FCS with an average of 123.1 yards per game. Two years ago, EWU was just 112th out of 120 FCS teams in rushing offense.

Three of Eastern's returning running backs - senior Demitrius Bronson (472 yards on 132 carries in 2012), junior Mario Brown and junior Quincy Forte (592 yards on 126 carries) - have each started at least five games in their careers and combined for 1,842 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.

Defensively, EWU must rebuild the defensive line and linebacker positions after losing three prominent performers at each position.

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