Even before the season began, Saturday’s home game against North Dakota had “trap” written all over it, a tricky matchup against a Big Sky Conference newcomer sandwiched between emotional games against Montana and Montana State.
Little has changed since then.
The Eastern Washington Eagles are coming off the highest of highs after a 32-26 win over the Grizzlies, which certainly begs the question: With second-ranked Montana State looming the following week, will seventh-ranked Eastern take this one lightly?
Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin hopes that question was answered even before the season began.
“I think it’s less to do with what you’re saying and more with what you’re trying to build while you’re in camp,” Baldwin said of keeping that one-game-at-a-time mentality. “During the game, you’re just trying to keep the body language where it needs to be.”
Last week, in its conference home opener, North Dakota watched as opponent Cal Poly did just that. The Mustangs blew a 14-0 lead and trailed 17-14 in the second half, but kept their heads and pulled away to win 35-17.
“Things got out of hand in weird fashion,” said North Dakota head coach Chris Mussman, 23-20 in four years in Grand Forks. That included a blocked field and a fake punt gone awry, but mostly UND’s inability to stop the run as 23rd-ranked Cal Poly picked up 321 yards on the ground with its spread triple option.
That will get no sympathy from the Eagles, who are 3-1 despite giving up 433 rushing yards to Montana.
“Montana did a good job with their schemes,” Baldwin said before stressing that the danger will shift this week – North Dakota (3-2 overall, 1-1 Big Sky) averages just 191 yards per game through the air, but 287 through the air.
“They’re totally different from Montana on offense,” Baldwin said. “They’re very explosive, and they throw the ball well and mix it up.”
In the third game of the season, at San Diego State of the Football Bowl Subdivision, UND quarterback Marcus Hendrickson passed for 434 yards and four touchdowns, three of those going to junior wideout Greg Hardin.
“He’s been our big-play guy since he got here,” Mussman said of Hardin, who has 24 catches for 495 yards and seven touchdowns.
Eastern receiver Brandon Kaufman has two fewer TDs, but has 24 catches for 559 yards.
Mussman compares Hendrickson with EWU quarterback Vernon Adams, who started only his second game last week.
“He’s fun to watch, and very athletic,” Mussman said. “(After watching film) our guys think he’s faster than Marcus, and Marcus is pretty quick.”
But Hendrickson might not start. Rumors are swirling this week that backup Braden Hanson (13 for 13 for 188 yards and two TDs this year) could be a surprise this week.
Hanson, just recovered from a leg injury suffered in the season opener, is considered a better pure passer, but Hendrickson is more mobile.
That could put the Eagles in the same boat as Montana, which had to prepare for Adams and Kyle Padron.
Regardless, the Eagles are dealing with several injuries on defense, including linebacker Zach Johnson, who’s questionable with a hamstring injury, and safety Jeff Minnerly (broken collarbone).
North Dakota is also banged up. Receiver R.J. McGill and linebackers Garrison Goodman and Damon Andrews are listed as questionable. McGill is UND’s second-leading receiver with 22 catches for 275 yards, while Goodman leads the team with 35 tackles – 16 of them unassisted.
North Dakota ranks 87th out of 121 FCS teams in total defense, giving up an average of 479 yards a game, though Baldwin is quick to cite that the numbers are more reflective of the opposition.
“They’re a veteran group and they like to mix up their pressure,” Baldwin said.