Eastern Washington cranks up the running game

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CHENEY — It’s the middle of the season – the perfect time for Eastern Washington’s running game to hit its stride.

Against Weber State last weekend, the Eagles ran the ball 41 times for 279 yards in their win over the Wildcats. That came a week after a 37-carry day at Sam Houston, a game the Eagles lost on the scoreboard but perhaps gained something for the future.

“I just don’t think you can win championships if you only do one aspect really well,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said during Tuesday’s practice at Roos Field, where the sixth-ranked Eagles (3-2) were preparing for Saturday’s game at North Dakota.

To that end, Baldwin and the offensive coaches and players have continued to build up the running game. Or rebuild, considering that the Eagles offered an almost perfect split (492 rushes, 524 passes) during the drive to the championship in 2010.

A year later, thanks to injuries and the early departure to the NFL of running back Taiwan Jones, the Eagles were the most pass-heavy team in the FCS – gaining just 3.0 yards a carry when they did try to run. Not coincidentally, they also finished 6-5.

Balance was almost restored last year (464 rushes, 517 passes), though Baldwin wishes it had been more consistent and not dictated mostly by what opposing defenses were giving up.

“We wanted a more consistent approach here this year, not measured by how the total yards added up, but I wanted a total game,” Baldwin said.

That will keep opponents guessing; before the season, it was the Eastern running backs who were left wondering.

Asked whether he thought that after five games that the Eagles would have more rushes (190) than pass attempts (163), running back Quincy Forte said, “No, we didn’t think so, but coach (Baldwin) wants a balanced attack.”

That starts with quarterback Vernon Adams, whose scrambling ability has helped running lanes, especially inside. Still the Eagles’ leading ground-gainer with 255 yards (15 more than Forte), Adams in turn appreciates that the enhanced running game “takes a lot of pressure off me.”

“When we can be multidimensional, I think no team can stop us,” Adams said.

The numbers back him up. The Eagles are averaging 4.9 yards a carry, so far the best in Baldwin’s five-plus years in charge of the program. They’re also challenging opponents inside, something they tended to avoid last year.

“We don’t want to be just an outside team,” said running back Mario Brown, who along with Demitrius Bronson was the Eagles’ Mr. Inside against Weber State.

In a sense, Brown has come full-circle along with the running game. A key part of the offense when Jones went down to injury late in the 2010 season, Brown saw his role shrink in 2011 and disappear completely when he opted to “get healthy” in 2012 and use his redshirt year.

Saturday’s game “felt good,” said Brown, who not only had 98 yards on 10 carries, but had a career-long run of 37 yards.

“It’s been a long time, I finally got a chance and I took advantage of it,” Brown said.

Redshirt freshman RB Jabari Wilson and junior OL Jake Rodgers are still questionable for the team’s first trip to North Dakota. … The game is Eastern’s 200th conference game since joining the Big Sky in 1987.

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