Unlike their fans, football coaches don’t dwell on the past. There’s just no time.
Last year, Eastern Washington was toppled from the top spot in the FCS rankings by an upset loss to struggling Southern Utah. It stung at the time, but that was 12 months ago.
“That team is gone, and their team is gone,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin, shaking his head at the question. “That was last year.”
The other difference: both teams have something to play for in today’s sold-out Homecoming game at Roos Field. Fourth-ranked Eastern needs to keep its momentum heading into next week’s showdown at Montana, while the Thunderbirds are trying to win their sixth game and stay in contention for a spot in the FCS playoffs.
The Eagles (4-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big Sky Conferene) have gotten this far on the arm and legs of quarterback Vernon Adams, but also with a resurgent running game; in the last three games combined, the Eagles have run the ball 116 times and passed it just 90.
That makes them look a little like Southern Utah (5-2 and 2-1), which in seven games has 254 runs and 216 passes.
The difference, Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said, is that the Eagles have a confidence on offense that his team lacks after last year’s quarterback, Brad Sorensen, was drafted by the San Diego Chargers.
“The thing that really stands out is the confidence their offense plays with,” said Lamb, now in his sixth season. “They’ll be disciplined and tough, and all of a sudden they go over the top.”
Lamb said his own offense has a “long way to go before we’re at that level.”
For now, the Thunderbirds are content to move safely down the field on short passes from junior quarterback Aaron Cantu (133 for 208, with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions), and the running of freshman Raysean Martin (87 carries for 352 yards and five TDs). Leading receiver Fatu Moala averages only 11.2 yards per catch.
“Conservative – that’s our game, but that doesn’t mean we’re not looking for what’s there,” Lamb said. “Our game isn’t to chuck it downfield and see what happens.”
Tough defense is Lamb’s strong suit; the T-Birds give up 19 points and 115 rushing yards a game, both ranking second in the conference behind Montana. Sophomore linebacker Zak Browning – the Big Sky defensive freshman of the year last season – ranks eighth in the conference with 53 total tackles.
“We have a smart, tough, physical physical football team, that and winning the special teams battle,” Lamb said.
That T-Birds did just that last season, blocking an Eastern punt in the first quarter – the Eagles’ first of the year. The Eagles also missed a field goal – All-American Jimmy Pavel’s only miss of the regular season last year.
But then, that was last year.