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EWU puts offensive balance against pass-happy T-birds

QB Brad Sorensen directs a pass- oriented Southern Utah offense. (Associated Press)
QB Brad Sorensen directs a pass- oriented Southern Utah offense. (Associated Press)

CEDAR CITY, Utah – Quarterback Brad Sorensen and the Southern Utah football team are putting up some impressive numbers this year.

The Thunderbirds are averaging 270 yards per game through the air with 18 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. They have scored 25 times out of 26 chances in the red zone.

They’re also 3-5 and aren’t going to see the FCS playoffs without a television.

Southern Utah may be a perfect example of why Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin pushed for a more balanced offense since last November, when the pass-happy Eagles finished 6-5 and out of the postseason.

The Thunderbirds are doing what they do best – throw the ball, partly because they’re forced to.

“He (Sorensen) covers up a lot of our deficiencies,” Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said.

That includes the T-birds’ running game, which struggles even as a change-up, producing just 2.7 yards per carry. Not coincidentally, they’re next-to-last in the conference in third-down conversions at 36.7 percent.

Sorensen has paid the price too, getting sacked 28 times, second most in the conference.

Almost a third (eight out of 25) of the red-zone scores have been field goals, a big factor for a team that has lost three conference games by a touchdown or less.

Last week against previously winless Weber State, the T-birds settled for second-half field goals of 31 and 33 yards and eventually lost by a 24-22 margin.

“I get it, I’ve been there,” Baldwin said Friday afternoon in sunny Cedar City, where the Eagles face Southern Utah today in a Big Sky Conference game.

“They play a lot of games with the same plan I had going into UW last year, or some of the games later in the year, where their passing game is an extension of the running game.”

This year, the Eagles (6-1 overall, 5-0 Big Sky) have run 500 offensive plays and the split is just what Baldwin hoped for: 254 runs, 246 passes.

“I don’t keep track, so I didn’t know it was that close,” Baldwin said. “But we’ve worked to make that a reality.”

Most of Eastern’s yardage (1,883 out of 2,906) is still coming through the air, but the ground game is picking up 4 yards per carry and creating more opportunities in the passing game, especially with play-action passes.

“But if you’re not attempting to run and having some success running, that stuff’s not going to open up,” Baldwin said.

It isn’t the only factor, but Baldwin believes that offensive balance is one reason the Eagles are poised for a big season.

Baldwin expects the Eagles’ defense to bend against a prolific passing team but make Southern Utah work for every yard, much as it did against Montana State quarterback Denarius McGhee in a 27-24 win that catapulted the Eagles to the top of the FCS rankings.

“So maybe by the third quarter, he’s taken some hits and seen some different coverages,” Baldwin said. “But most of all, you have to mix it up against a guy like that.”

Baldwin said he will start redshirt freshman Vernon Adams at quarterback.