Eastern Washington knows the drill all too well: Win out, or put the footballs away early this fall.
It is the same daunting task the Eagles faced last fall after dropping two of their first three Big Sky Conference games to severely jeopardize their chances of making the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
That team, under since-departed head coach Paul Wulff, used an “every game’s a playoff game from here on out” mantra as motivation, and went on to win its last five conference games and earn an at-large playoff berth.
That same line of thinking is being used by first-year coach Beau Baldwin and his Eagles (2-4, 1-2), who face conference rival Montana State (3-3, 1-1) in Bozeman at 12:05 this afternoon.
“We can’t afford another loss, so every game is a playoff game for us,” sophomore linebacker J.C. Sherritt said after last Saturday’s 19-3 home loss to Montana. “That’s the only way we can look at it.”
If the Eagles hope to once again run the table against Big Sky opponents, they must find a way past an MSU team that loves to run the football.
The Bobcats are averaging 162.5 yards per game on the ground, and have rushed for 524 in their last three games. Demetrius Crawford, a 5-foot-8, 175-pound senior, is MSU’s leading ground-gainer, having rambled for 508 yards and four touchdowns on 120 carries. Second-year coach Rob Ash has another outstanding short-yardage runner in C.J. Palmer, a 6-foot, 228-pound freshman, who has rushed for 175 yards and a team-high six touchdowns on just 29 carries.
“They run the ball a ton and have a heavy run-to-pass ratio,” Baldwin said of the Bobcats, who have rushed the ball 246 times, while attempting only 169 passes. They believe in ball control, defense and staying in tighter games.
Eastern’s defense, despite giving up a Big Sky-worst 473.8 yards per game, has had some success in stopping the run, but it has yet to face a team as married to its ground game as MSU. Ash is hoping his Bobcats can use their running game to eat up some clock against the Eagles, much like Montana did last weekend.
“I liked the way Montana controlled the football,” Ash said. “They did a nice job that way in their offense. Possession time was key in that game.”
Ash also liked the job the Grizzlies’ defense did against EWU.
“They played real hard on defense, and they played well,” he said. “Most of the time, they kept the ball in front of them and didn’t allow big plays, and Eastern Washington has a tremendous capacity for big plays. So that may be the biggest thing for our defense – just keeping everything in front.”
Baldwin is hoping his team can take better care of the football and create a few turnovers of its own.
“I know you hear every coach talk about it, but it’s so true,” he said. “And we did a better job of that last week, as far as taking care of the football – we only had that one turnover. But on the flip side, we weren’t able to create any, and that hurts you.
“You gotta get teams out of drives.”
EWU leads the series 23-8 and has won eight of the last 10 matchups. … MSU’s last win came in 2002 when it beat the Eagles 25-14 in Bozeman. … The Bobcats ranked second in the Big Sky in total defense, having allowed an average of 336.5 yards per game. … Montana State has allowed only five sacks all season, and one in its last three games.