It won’t be a win-or-go-home situation for Eastern Washington University this afternoon in Flagstaff, Ariz., when it takes on Big Sky Conference rival Northern Arizona at 3 in the Walkup Skydome.
But the Eagles (1-4 overall, 1-2 BSC), with six regular-season games remaining, must win to retain even a remote chance of making the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and successfully defending their NCAA Division I championship.
And coach Beau Baldwin knows that knocking off the Lumberjacks (2-2, 1-1), who are coming off a bye week, will be a tall order.
“You look at their D-line, and you see they have a lot of veteran guys up there who are the leaders of their defense,” he said of the Lumberjacks, who rank No. 2 in the Big Sky in scoring (22 points per game) and total (442 yards per game) defense.
“That’s not taking anything away from their back seven – linebackers and secondary – but I just think it starts with their guys up front. They set the tone for a defense that is going to be a serious challenge for us.”
The Eagles’ defense will face a difficult task, as well, in trying to slow down a balanced NAU attack that features sophomore running back Zach Bauman, who has rushed for 488 yards and four touchdowns on 97 carries. Bauman, who is averaging 5 yards per carry, ranks No. 2 in the BSC in rushing, with an average of 122 yards per game.
And the Lumberjacks also feature a productive hand under center in junior quarterback Cary Grossart, who has completed 66 of 110 passes for 922 yards and five touchdowns and ranks fourth in the conference with an average of 230.5 passing yards per game.
“Offensively, like NAU teams in the past, they give you tremendous balance,” Baldwin said. “I’ve always been impressed by what they do throwing the football, and then they always seem to add one of the best running backs in the league. They really mix it up and keep you off balance, and, again, that’s no different this year.”
Eastern, which picked up its first win of the year by beating Weber State 27-21 in Cheney last weekend, will continue to operate with a patchwork offensive line that has been gutted by injuries. But the Eagles still have enough healthy bodies to get the attention of long-time NAU coach Jerome Souers, who feels they took a big stride against WSU.
“In spite of the previous record, Eastern did a really good job of getting back to being themselves,” he said. “They got back to using some heavier sets, with multiple tight ends, and changed the game a little bit. They’ve done a tremendous job of taking their injury situation and showing off their depth.
“It was very impressive beating Weber, which I thought was performing as well as anyone in the conference at the time.”
Eastern’s Bo Levi Mitchell threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s 21-14 home win over the Lumberjacks. … EWU has won its last four games against NAU, and holds an 18-10 lead in the all-time series.