As he stepped up to a season-high four television cameras at practice Tuesday afternoon, Eastern Washington head football coach Beau Baldwin stated the obvious: “It must mean that we’re winning.”
Five minutes later, he stressed the not-so-obvious: There’s plenty of room for improvement, despite the sixth-ranked Eagles’ 55-17 win over North Dakota last weekend.
“We need to be about critiquing ourselves and seeing even the small things that went wrong,” said Baldwin, who knows those mistakes could be magnified in the glare of Saturday’s showdown at second-ranked Montana State.
Unprompted, senior wide receiver Greg Herd said the same thing after drawing media praise for his 56-yard, two-touchdown performance against North Dakota.
“And a fumble,” he reminded everyone.
Eastern is 3-0 in the conference and 4-1 overall, while Montana State is 3-0 and 6-0 entering the showdown at sold-out Bobcat Stadium, capacity 17,777. Kickoff is at 12:40 p.m. PDT.
Saturday’s winner will own at least a share of the lead in the Big Sky Conference, but with Cal Poly and Northern Arizona also still unbeaten in conference play the loser faces an uphill battle for an automatic bid into the FCS playoffs.
But if it’s time for the Eastern players to step up for this one, they’ve already done that, especially on defense. With linebackers Zach Johnson and J.C Agen injured (and questionable for MSU), the Eagles have juggled their lineup. In this week’s depth chart Grant Williams is listed at both strong-inside and weak-outside linebacker, and Chase King has seen more playing time.
“They’re doing a great job,” Baldwin said. “It’s been fun to see those guys out there.”
At safety, redshirt freshman Jordan Tonani has taken over for senior Jeff Minnerly, who’s out with a broken collarbone. “He’s been a great mentor, helping me through a lot of things,” Tonani said of Minnerly. “Now I just have to do my job.”
Last weekend, that included a team-high 11 tackles; this week, he’s sure to meet up with Bobcat quarterback DeNarius McGhee, both in run support and pass coverage. “It’s easier said than done,” Tonani said.
On the other side of the ball, Baldwin noted more improvement in the play of his own quarterback, redshirt freshman Vernon Adams. “He did a lot of things that were sharp, and he really didn’t make a bad play,” Baldwin said.
But if anyone is reading too much into Montana State giving up six touchdowns in a 48-41 win at UC Davis, last weekend, Baldwin says otherwise. “Their defense is way better than that,” Baldwin said.
Eastern ranks third in FCS in turnover margin with a plus-6. Montana State leads the Big Sky in third-down conversion offense (56.2 percent) and offense (allowing only 26.7 percent). … The conference suspended four players: Idaho State OL Nick Beckman for throwing a punch against Portland State; ISU freshman DB Taison Manu and UC Davis sophomore LB Stephen Pitts were suspended a full game for tackling using the crown of their helmet; and Cal Poly junior DB Alex Hubbard was suspended one game for a high hit on a defenseless Weber State player. All suspensions will be served this weekend.