Six games into the football season, only one thing is certain: The Eastern Washington football team is halfway home.
With a 5-1 record and a No. 1 national ranking, the Eagles are on track to host a second-round FCS playoff game provided they don’t stumble down the stretch, starting with today’s homecoming game against Sacramento State.
That hasn’t been a recent problem. During the past 21/2 seasons, the Eagles are 19-1 in games played after September. In another welcome trend, they’ve been pushing harder in the second half of games, especially on defense.
Last week at Montana State, the Eagles (4-0 Big Sky Conference) displayed a relentlessness that was the difference in the program’s biggest win since taking the 2010 title.
“We were really flying around,” defensive end Paul Ena said.
More important, the Eagles were flying around in the second half and getting stronger as the game went on, a crucial improvement in the last two games. The payoff came on the scoreboard as they outscored both North Dakota and MSU in the third quarter, something that didn’t happen in the two previous outings against Weber State and Montana.
“We took a serious mind set in how we approach the third quarter and did a few things differently at halftime,” head coach Beau Baldwin said, without going into detail.
“It’s something every team wants,” said Baldwin, who also credited depth in the defensive line. “Being able to rotate guys – that’s one of the keys to being relentless in the pass rush,” he said.
It should be a key again today against a balanced Sacramento State offense, which features a mobile, accurate passer and a versatile running back.
The Hornets (3-1 Big Sky) don’t figure to be awed today. Two years ago in Cheney, the Eagles needed a Brandon Kaufman touchdown catch with 33 seconds left to pull out a 28-24 win. Sacramento State has won four of its last six games in Cheney, and is coming into this one with a 5-2 overall record that is the Hornets’ best seven-game mark in 20 years.
That record has come against teams that are a combined 10-35, but the Hornets own a 30-28 win at Colorado of the Pac-12. Sacramento State has the toughest remaining schedule in the FCS. After today’s game, the Hornets face Cal Poly (6-0) and Montana State (5-1) before finishing with UC Davis (3-4).
Quarterback Garrett Safron has completed 142 of 217 pass attempts (65.4 percent) for 1,536 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“He’s very dynamic,” Baldwin said earlier this week, noting that Safron has 266 yards and two TDs on the ground.
A pleasant surprise is running back Ezekiel Graham, a junior college transfer.
“(He has) done a nice job acclimating to everything,” Hornets head coach Marshall Sperbeck said. “He won the starting job in camp, and he goes out and plays hard every week.”
Graham has 610 yards on 114 carries for a 5.0 average per carry, fourth highest in the conference for backs with at least 100 carries. He also has 225 yards receiving.
Confronting Safron and Graham is an Eastern defense that Sperbeck characterizes as “very sound, fairly simplistic.
“(Their scheme) allows their players to get to the ball very quickly, and they tackle extremely well.”
On the other side of the ball, Eastern is coming off a 211-yard effort against Montana State, its lowest of the season, although against the top defense in the conference.
Despite a 12-for-29 passing effort at MSU that included two interceptions, redshirt freshman Vernon Adams still ranks third in the conference in pass efficiency.
“He’s handling it all very well, the highs and the lows for a young quarterback,” Baldwin said.
Sacramento State ranks eighth out of 13 Big Sky teams in total defense (400.9 per game) but last in pass defense (289.3 per game).
An equalizer could be the weather. Today’s forecast calls for highs in the upper 40s and a 30 percent chance of rain.