With the availability of Taiwan Jones expected once again to be a game-time decision, 13th-ranked Eastern Washington University will square off against Northern Arizona Saturday in another high-stakes Big Sky Conference showdown that kicks off at 1:05 p.m. at Roos Field.
Jones, the Eagles’ junior running back and the nation’s leader in all-purpose yardage with an average of 238.8 per game, missed last weekend’s 35-24 road win over Weber State with an abdominal contusion suffered a week earlier in a 30-7 loss to Montana State in Bozeman.
He was strictly limited at practice again this week, and Beau Baldwin is still not sure whether the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder will be able to play in a game Baldwin calls hugely important for both his Eagles (3-2 overall, 2-1 in the Big Sky) and the visiting Lumberjacks (3-1, 1-0).
“It’s similar to what it was last week,” Eastern’s third-year head coach said, when asked to update Jones’ health status. “I think there’s a better chance (he will play) this week than last.
“I would guess he will, but we’re still preparing like we did last week – which is like he won’t.”
With or without Jones, the Eagles figure to be severely tested by an NAU team that features one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Michael Herrick, along with a defense that ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky in scoring defense (17.8 ppg), run defense (84.0 ypg) and total defense (270.8 ypg).
Eastern, behind Matt Nichols’ five touchdown passes, beat the Lumberjacks 49-45 in a Flagstaff, Ariz., shootout last fall. But Herrick, a 6-foot 1, 205-pound senior, torched the Eagles’ defense for 574 passing yards and four touchdowns.
Herrick’s passing numbers this fall – 72 completions in 122 attempts for 762 yards and six touchdowns – have not been that impressive. Still, Baldwin remains a big fan of the trigger man in NAU’s offense.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Baldwin said of Herrick. “He’s played a lot of football, so he understands. It’s not like you can fool him with a lot of stuff, because he’s seen it all. And on top of that, he has a lot of talent.
“He’s going to throw for yards, and he’s going to make plays. It’s just a matter of trying to do enough stuff to make things tough for him.”
This will be the fourth-straight road game for the Lumberjacks, who picked up a 26-23 non-conference win over Southern Utah last Saturday. And even if Jones doesn’t play, they will have to deal with Eastern’s junior quarterback and first-year transfer Bo Levi Mitchell, who had a breakout game against Weber State, throwing for 377 yards and four touchdowns.
When asked about the importance of today’s matchup, Baldwin went with a hard-sell approach.
“All these early season games become huge for every team,” he said. “For us and NAU, which ever team comes out with the victory, they put themselves in a nice position halfway through the Big Sky schedule.
“That’s the great thing about this league and college football, in general. You have that playoff atmosphere every week, especially early in the year when everyone still has aspirations and visions toward that.
“It’ll mean a lot to whichever team is able to come out with a win.”
Third and short
EWU holds a 17-10 edge in the series against the Lumberjacks and has won the last five of the last six meeting, including that last three. … NAU is a plus-4 in turnovers this fall, and Eastern is a plus-3. … The Eagles won the turnover battle in last year’s game by a 4-0 margin. … As part of today’s annual Hall of Fame Day, Eastern will honor its latest inductees – the 1950 football team and its coach, the late Albert “Abe” Poffenroth, former track and field standouts Curt Hisaw and Seville Broussard-Hering and former women’s basketball coach Bill Smithpeters. In addition, Ernie Afaganis will be given the Hall of Fame Service and Contribution Award.