Eagles hope offensive balance does trick

Eastern Washington was rough on Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen when the teams met in 2010. (The Spokesman-Review)

CEDAR CITY, Utah – Quarterback Brad Sorensen and the Southern Utah football team are putting up some impressive numbers this year.

The Thunderbirds are averaging 270 yards a game through the air for 18 touchdowns, just eight interceptions, and have scored 25 times out of 26 chances in the red zone.

They’re also 3-5 and aren’t going to see the FCS playoffs without a television.

Southern Utah may be a perfect example of why Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin pushed for a more balanced offense since last November, when the pass-happy Eagles finished 6-5 and out of the postseason.

The Thunderbirds are doing what they do best – throw the ball, partly because they’re forced to.

“He (Sorensen) covers up a lot of our deficiencies,” Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said.

That includes the T-Birds’ running game, which struggles even as a change-up, producing just 2.7 yards per carry. Not coincidentally, they’re next-to-last in the conference in third-down conversions at 36.7 percent.

Sorensen has paid the price too, getting sacked 28 times this year, second most in the conference.

Almost a third (eight out of 25) of the red-zone scores have been field goals, a big factor for a team that has lost three conference games by a touchdown or less. Last week against previously winless Weber State, the Thunderbirds settled for second-half field goals of 31 and 33 yards and eventually lost 24-22.

“I get it, I’ve been there,” Baldwin said Friday afternoon in sunny Cedar City, where Eagles face Southern Utah today in a Big Sky Conference game. Kickoff is at noon Pacific Time at Eccles Coliseum.

“They play a lot of games with the same plan I had going into UW last year, or some of the games later in the year, where their passing game is an extension of the running game.”

This year, the Eagles (6-1 overall, 5-0 Big Sky) have run 500 offensive plays and the split is just what Baldwin hoped for: 254 runs, 246 passes.

“I don’t keep track, so I didn’t know it was that close,” Baldwin said. “But we’ve worked to make that a reality.”

Most of Eastern’s yardage (1,883 out of 2,906) is still coming through the air, but the ground game is picking up 4 yards a carry and creating more opportunities in the passing game, especially play-action passes.

“But if you’re not attempting to run and having some success running, that stuff’s not going to open up,” Baldwin said.

It isn’t the only factor, but Baldwin believes that offensive balance is one reason the Eagles are poised for a big season.

Baldwin expects the Eagles’ defense to bend against a prolific passing team but make Southern Utah work for every yard, much as it did against Montana State quarterback Denarius McGhee in a 27-24 win that catapulted the Eagles to the top of the FCS rankings.

“So maybe by the third quarter, he’s taken some hits and seen some different coverages,” Baldwin said. “But most of all, you have to mix it up against a guy like that.”

That’s what the Eagles plan to do on offense: Mix it up against a defense that ranks third from the bottom of the conference in both rushing and passing defense, but leads the league with 22 takeaways.

“Because their scheme is simple, it allows them to play with speed,” Baldwin said. “They keep everything in front of them and they create a bunch of turnovers. That means they’re mentally tough.”

Baldwin said he will start redshirt freshman Vernon Adams at quarterback.

“From there we’re going to feel it out,” Baldwin said, comparing the situation with last week’s Sacramento State game when Kyle Padron played most of the second half in a 31-28 win.

Lamb compares Padron’s arm to Sorensen’s, while praising Adams for being “so dangerous with his feet and doing a tremendous job of getting out of trouble.”

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