Just what exactly do the Eastern Washington Eagles do offensively?
It’s a question that’s not difficult to answer, but Eastern’s prolific attack still keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night trying to figure out how to stop it. The Eagles currently lead the FCS in passing yards per game and Vernon Adams has 16 touchdown tosses in just three starts. But EWU is also one of the most balanced teams in the league and its 193 yards per game on the ground are second in the Big Sky.
The mastermind of the offense has been Beau Baldwin, the two-time reigning Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year. Baldwin has led EWU to three conference titles in four seasons, three national semifinal runs and the 2010 FCS national title. He’s widely considered one of the brightest young minds in college football, yet he’s inhabited a 170-mile stretch between Ellensburg and Cheney for the past 25 years.
The origins Baldwin’s prolific attack — one that’s ranked among the nation’s best and produced a pair of FBS victories, including last season’s 49-46 win over No. 25 Oregon State — can be traced all the way back to Bozeman if you follow the winding road long enough.
Baldwin played quarterback and began his coaching career at Central Washington University. There, he played for current Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson, a former CWU quarterback himself. Olson began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Dennis Erickson at Washington State.
Erickson, Montana State’s quarterback in the late 1960s and an assistant on Sonny Holland’s staff in the early 1970s, is credited with a key contributor in the evolution of the vaunted single-back offense. To watch Eastern Washington today is to see the 21st century hyperactive version of Erickson’s single-back attack. The Eagles put the quarterback under center much more often than most teams that throw for 400 yards per game. Despite averaging 84 plays per outing, the Eagles still huddle more than a lot of college football teams. And in basically every set EWU runs, tailbacks like Quincy Forte and Mario Brown are all alone in the backfield.
“Our roots, my roots and what I know best goes back to those one-back principles that Dennis Erickson and Greg Olson used,” Baldwin said. “I was fortunate enough to play under a coach like Greg, who’s now been in the NFL for a long time and has been incredibly successful. We still go back to that, the nuts and bolts of what we do offensively. By all means, we’ve added read aspects and like everyone else, finding ways to basically run block up front with a run-pass option, but not to the extent of some offenses. We’ve still kept what I feel like is the foundation of our offense, which does go back to some of the one-back principles and we’ve mixed in enough other stuff that we like to take advantage of an athletic quarterback and some things that can be hard on a defense. I enjoy that too and it’s what I still like. I just don’t see myself getting away from the single-back.”
Erickson left Montana State in 1973 to take over as the offensive coordinator at Idaho. In an era where almost every team still consistently used a fullback, Erickson’s single-back attack started paying dividends right away as J.C. Chadband rushed for more than 750 yards and six touchdowns in 1973. In 1974, Dave Cornstock scored eight times on the ground. Erickson spent three seasons at Fresno State and three more at San Jose State before taking over as Idaho’s head coach in 1982. Gerald Willhite helped Erickson land the head coaching gig by rushing for 2,403 yards and 20 touchdowns at SJSU in 1980 and 1981.
By the late 1980s, Erickson’s style had spread across the West, partly because the he had head coaching stops at Wyoming (1986) and Washington State (1987-1988). After leading Wazzu to its first bowl win since 1916, Erickson hit the big time. University of Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich, a Butte native, hired Erickson to lead the Hurricanes. Erickson lead the U to the 1989 and 1991 before embarking on an NFL career that included stops as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.
Olson used the principles he learned under Erickson at WSU to climb the NFL ladder. After coaching Baldwin at CWU from 1990-93, he coached quarterbacks at Idaho and Purdue. In 2001, he took over as the quarterbacks coach for the 49ers and has been in the NFL ever since.
Baldwin has used his roots to cultivate one of the top offenses in college football. He took over as CWU’s quarterback coach in 1994 and helped mentor future NFL gunslinger Jon Kitna, who led CWU to the NAIA national title in 1995. Last season, Adams threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 55 touchdowns and Forte rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 11 scores. This season, EWU is averaging 50 points and nearly 600 yards of offense, yet are almost exactly balanced between run and pass; EWU has thrown 121 passes and rushed the ball 116 times.
“We are almost always even,” Adams said. “We do like to pass the ball, but we have four running backs who are amazing running backs. Our offensive line is huge and tough. That’s been our biggest focus the last two years is to be an even team, 50/50 and not put so much pressure on our offensive line pass blocking every play.”
Montana State knows full well the potency of EWU’s attack. Last season, Eastern scored on eight straight possessions to hand MSU a 54-29 loss in Cheney, the first of three straight to end the season for the Bobcats. The Eagles gashed MSU for 244 yards rushing while Adams completed 16-of-18 passes for 300 yards and four scores.
“I’ve been impressed with the way Beau calls plays and runs their offense,” Ash said. “They’ve had some great playmakers too that make those calls look like better calls because the guys can go execute them. He gives his guys confidence that they can make big plays on offense. He’s really willing to throw the ball in every situation and he’s willing to run it in every situation. He’s deceptive and aggressive and they put a lot of points on the board.”
If you sell out to stop the run, Adams will find one of his favorite targets like All-America Cooper Kupp or speedster Shaq Hill down the field.
“The diversity of their attack is amazing,” Ash said. “Their ability to threaten you down the field at all times is really crucial. You have to be very cautious of committing your safeties to the run game because they have the ability and willingness to throw it down the field. But if you are cautious, they can gash you with the run.”
Adams’ growth as a quarterback and his ability to recognize defenses in the heat of battle has been key to the diversification of the offense.
“If our passing game isn’t working, we’ll run the ball and if we need to huddle up and slow things down, we will,” Adams said. “If we want to attack, we will attack. We have different mindsets each series. We never know what we are going to do. Sometimes, I’ll say let’s go attack and we will. Other times, I’ll say let’s slow it down and we will slow it down. It’s always different. It’s what I love about our offense.”
“Those receivers on the outside and those linemen, they are in such good shape that we can just keep rolling and rolling, go at a fast pace,” Forte said. “In the run game, we run a lot of heavy formations, power and we will spread teams out and run out of the gun spread. It’s a great offense. We are just using it in all the ways we can now.”
Each offense in college football can trace its roots back to football in a past generation. Urban Meyer helped revolutionize the game with the zone-read option, which in reality is a version of the veer or triple option operated out of the shotgun. The “Air Raid” made famous by Mike Leach at Texas Tech is a version of the triple option where the quarterback does nothing but throw the ball around.
One trend that has permeated offenses across college football is the desire to no longer huddle. Although Baldwin’s field-stretching, up-tempo offense is a sure evolution from the Erickson days, the Eagles head coach hopes one thing always remains.
“There’s still something special about being able to huddle,” Baldwin said. “For a number of reasons. Whether it’s getting into a huddle or getting under center at times or getting into two or three-tight end sets. That stuff is still very important to me and what I like and what I’ve always liked and I still want that to be a big part of our offense.”