The top two running backs in the Big Sky Conference will be showcased at Roos Field this afternoon when eighth-ranked Eastern Washington University entertains Sacramento State in a game that could go a long way in deciding both teams’ postseason fates.
Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m., and it’s homecoming weekend for the Eagles (5-2 overall, 4-1 in the Big Sky), who are off to their best start since 1997 when they advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs before losing to Youngstown State.
Eastern is currently tied for first place in the BSC standings with Montana and Montana State, and just a game and a half ahead of Sac State (3-3, 2-2), which had a bye last Saturday.
The Hornets come in having suffered their two league losses – against Montana (28-25) and MSU (64-61 in overtime) – by a combined total of only six points. And they boast the Big Sky’s second-leading rusher in Bryan Hillard, whose average of 120.3 yards per game trails only that of Eastern’s Taiwan Jones (122.3 ypg).
“He’s good,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said of Hillard, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior, who has rushed for seven touchdowns this fall. “He’ll grind for yards when he needs to, but at the same time, he can get out and go when something opens up.”
But Baldwin has a running back of his own who can get out and go a little, as well.
Jones, who is getting healthier each week after missing the Eagles’ 35-24 win over Weber State with an abdominal contusion, has rushed for 734 yards and six touchdowns, while also catching 13 passes for 228 yards and two more TDs.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Sac State coach Marshall Sperbeck said of Jones, a 6-1, 200-pound junior, “and we have to do our best to keep him between the hashes and at arm’s length, so to speak. I don’t think you’re going to stop him. You just hope to contain him and control the damage as best you can.
“He’s going to get his share of yards, we know that.”
Despite their mediocre record, Sperbeck’s Hornets have caught the attention of Baldwin and his players.
“They’re a team, right now, that’s just a play or two away from being undefeated in conference, and for good reason,” Baldwin said. “They’re extremely talented, well-coached, and I like what they do.
“It’s going to be an absolutely tough opponent in a playoff-like atmosphere.”
Eastern beat Sac State 56-30 in Sacramento last season, but has lost to the Hornets the last two times they have faced them in Cheney.