If the worst is, indeed, over for Eastern Washington University’s football team, the Eagles’ coaching staff would like to keep it a secret, especially as far as its players are concerned.
Eastern’s 21-14 win over Northern Arizona at Roos Field on Saturday capped a remarkably difficult early season Big Sky Conference schedule. The Eagles (4-2 overall, 3-1 in the BSC) opened playing four teams – Montana, Montana State, Weber State and NAU – that were perceived at the beginning of the year to be among the top five in the league. EWU was the fifth.
Next up is a trip to Northern Colorado, where the Eagles will square off Saturday against a Bears team (2-4, 1-3) picked to finish seventh in preseason polls of Big Sky coaches and media.
And the remainder of Eastern’s conference schedule is against teams – Sacramento State (3-3, 3-2), Portland State (2-3, 1-1) and Idaho State (1-5, 0-4) – picked to finish 6th, 8th and 9th, respectively, in those same polls.
When asked about the possibility of his players thinking their biggest challenges are in the rear-view mirror, third-year head coach Beau Baldwin admitted it was a concern.
“You can get caught up, even as coaches, in looking at the beginning of our Big Sky schedule and thinking, ‘Yeah, on paper, that was the preseason meat of our schedule,’” Baldwin said Monday. “But the last thing I want is some sort of exhale of any kind by our players, and that’s something I’m going to address again today when we meet with the team.
“All you have to do is look at what’s happening around the Big Sky – the way some games have turned out and the way certain teams are playing – and you can see the schedule, from top to bottom, is a bear.”
Certainly, no one is trying to butt to the front of the line to play a Sac State team that blistered UNC 42-7 on Saturday after suffering back-to-back losses to Montana and Montana State by a combined margin of six points. And Baldwin is also quick to point out that Northern Colorado pushed Weber to the limit before losing 24-17.
Defense gets it done
A lot of coaches shy away from rating specific performances, but EWU defensive coordinator John Graham had no problem slapping a No. 1 in front of the one his defense put on during Saturday’s win over Northern Arizona.
The Eagles held the Lumberjacks to 39 rushing yards and stopped them on downs on each of the last three possessions, when the outcome was still very much in doubt after NAU recovered a Taiwan Jones fumble in Eastern’s end zone for an early fourth-quarter touchdown that cut the deficit to 21-14.
“Any time you only give up one touchdown, you feel pretty good about it,” Graham said. “The kids were put in some tough situations (by five turnovers committed by the offense) and just kept rallying and making plays.
“It was as good as we’ve played all year.”
Eastern’s senior All-American linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award candidate J.C. Sherritt was honored on Monday by both the Big Sky Conference and The Sporting News for his performance against NAU.
Sherritt, who led all FCS players with an average of 14.17 tackles per game as a junior last fall, was named the Big Sky defensive player of the week and recognized as a national Sporting News All-Star after being involved in 16 tackles – including a sack – and intercepting a pass.
Jones watch on again
After returning to the starting lineup after missing a game with an abdominal contusion, another health watch is on for standout running back Taiwan Jones.
Jones rushed for 48 yards on 16 carries against NAU before leaving the game early in the fourth quarter with tightness in his hip and lower back.
According to Baldwin, Jones has been working with a chiropractor to treat the stiffness, but is listed as “questionable to probable” for this Saturday’s game at Northern Colorado.
Saturday’s win moved Eastern up from 13th to 12th in this week’s FCS coaches’ poll and from 14th to 12th in The Sports Network/Fathead.com’s Top 25.
Big Sky leader Montana State, which rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Portland State, jumped from 10th to 9th in The Sports Network rankings, but remained No. 10 in the coaches’ rankings. Montana, off a 47-28 win over Idaho State, moved up from 12th to 11th in both polls.
Big Sky No. 1
The Big Sky moved past the Colonia Athletic Association into the No. 1 spot among FSC leagues in this week’s Sagarin ratings and is ranked 11th among all NCAA Division I conferences – ahead of two Football Bowl Subdivision leagues, the Mid-American (13th) and Sun Belt (18th).