September 23, 2011 in Sports

Eastern’s motivation at high level

By The Spokesman-Review

If there is such an ailment as motivational overload, Eastern Washington University’s winless football team might be afflicted.

Losers of their first three games on the road, the 21st-ranked Eagles will make their 2011 home debut this afternoon at Roos Field against fourth-ranked Big Sky Conference rival Montana State.

Kickoff is set for 4.

Eastern (0-3 overall, 0-1 Big Sky), according to coach Beau Baldwin, has all kinds of reasons to be jazzed about their much-anticipated matchup against the Bobcats (2-1, 0-0).

“It’s going to be great,” Baldwin said of finally getting to play at home on the red turf that seemed to have such a mystique during Eastern’s drive to the 2010 NCAA Division I championship. “I think every team feels that way, especially when you start off with a few road games.

“And whenever you start out and you’ve lost a few and still haven’t had that first victory, it intensifies the situation. But regardless of our record at this point, this game was going to be amplified anyway.”

Payback is certainly in play, as far as Eastern is concerned, because it was MSU that handed the Eagles their only conference defeat last fall – 30-7 in Bozeman – and ended up grabbing not only a share of the regular-season Big Sky title, but the conference’s No. 1 seed into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, as well.

“Our guys are excited about it, I know that,” Baldwin said.

Eastern comes in short on healthy bodies after losing two more starters in the offensive line to injuries during last Saturday’s 17-14 road loss to Montana. That means the Eagles’ offense must rely on some relatively untested young men up front as it attempts to operate against an MSU defense that has limited its first three opponents to fewer than 300 total yards per game.

“We have some guys up front that are new to starting, but some of them played last week against Montana and got some good experience there,” Baldwin said. “It may affect our game plan a little bit with what we do, but it’s not like they haven’t been running our stuff all camp.

“A lot of times, when you have new players, you simplify a few things just to allow them to play without thinking.”

Eastern’s defense will be challenged by a potent MSU offense built around sophomore quarterback DeNarius McGhee, the Big Sky’s Offensive MVP as a redshirt freshman last fall.

Baldwin said the defensive plan will focus on stopping the Bobcats’ running game and “trying to make life as difficult as we can for a great player, in McGhee.”

Baldwin also emphasized that despite his team’s 0-3 start, it is not time to panic. He backed that statement up by noting that most of the numbers the Eagles have put up so far this fall – in areas such as yards per game, opponents’ yards per game, first downs, number of plays per game and third-down percentage – are all better than they were at this time last year.

“The thing I see more than anything, though, is our (conference-low minus-2 per game) turnover margin,” Baldwin said. “And I don’t care what level you play at … if you’re struggling in winning the turnover battle – and we’re struggling right now, in terms of creating turnovers on defense and minimizing them on offense – it doesn’t matter what else you do.

“But I mean that in a positive sense, because we’re doing a lot of great things. We just have to get on the right side of the turnover battle and execute better in the red zone.

“We don’t feel that far off.”

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