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Eagles have plenty at stake at PSU

EWU Eagles (Courtesy)
EWU Eagles (Courtesy)

PORTLAND – The weather forecast here calls for a 100 percent chance of rain, with puddles enough for fans to reflect on remarkable turnarounds by two regional football rivals who meet again Saturday.

Last season, Eastern Washington finished 6-5 while Portland State went 7-4, bringing disappointment in Cheney but national recognition for a Vikings program that won just two games the year before.

The five-game improvement earned head coach Nigel Burton consideration for FCS coach of the year and raised expectations for 2012: The Vikings were picked fourth in this year’s Big Sky Conference preseason polls.

But leave it to one of the Montana schools – and not one of the usual suspects – to ruin the party. In the season opener, Carroll College, an NAIA school, hung around with PSU long enough for Burton to fire defensive coordinator Eric Jackson.

It didn’t help. Despite fielding one of the best offenses in the conference, PSU is 3-7 overall and 2-5 in the league largely because of a defense that’s conceded 45 touchdowns. The Vikings are tough against the run, giving up just 3.6 yards per rush, but have yielded 27 TDs through the air, most in the Sky.

Throw in an 0-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and it’s no wonder the Vikings will ponder the what-ifs while Eastern Washington (8-2 and 6-1) considers the possibilities of playoff games to come.

If the fifth-ranked Eagles can put away PSU Saturday at Jen-Weld Stadium, the reward will be a first-round bye in the upcoming FCS playoffs, plus home-field advantage for the second round and perhaps the quarterfinals – even the semis if the right teams fall later as they did when the Eagles went on to win the national title in 2010.

Brackets will be announced Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on ESPNU.

“We’re definitely not looking past Portland State,” EWU captain Will Post said earlier this week. “That’s how you get in trouble.” In Eastern’s case, a loss today would likely mean playing on Thanksgiving, perhaps far from home.

“We know how big this game is,” said Eagle cornerback T.J. Lee III, whose unit will face the pistol offense today. Freshman quarterback Kieran McDonagh averages 233 yards total offense while completing 54.8 percent of his passes.

“He’s pretty good on the deep ball and the receivers are pretty good at getting it,” Lee said. We have to train our eyes to stop the run and the deep passes.”

Overall, PSU ranks third in the conference in total offense with 441.2 yards a game, almost evenly split between pass and run.

EWU head coach Beau Baldwin points to the Viking offensive line as a strength, perhaps recalling how the Eagles gave up 499 yards to PSU in a 43-26 loss in Cheney last year, a defeat that ended any lingering playoff hopes.

Burton calls the Eastern receiving corps “the best in the conference if not the country.”