The rain was dancing off the track at Roos Field on Tuesday afternoon as the Eastern Washington football players splashed their way to practice, three days after a tough loss at Southern Utah.
Leave it to quarterback Vernon Adams to put a positive spin on things, even as the seventh-ranked Eagles face a crucial home game against Cal Poly on Saturday.
Reminded that it’s likely to rain all week, Adams responded, “Hey, that kind of helps us because we’re practicing all week in this, and they’re in California.”
Like Eastern, the Mustangs also are coming off an upset loss that only raises the stakes for a nonconference game that should go far in deciding who reaches the FCS playoffs, which begin in four weeks. The Mustangs dropped from 11th to 16th in the FCS poll after a 35-29 loss at Sacramento State, their first loss of the season. Cal Poly is 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the Big Sky Conference.
The Eagles, 6-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Sky, lost their top ranking after a 30-27 at Southern Utah.
Saturday’s winner will stay in the hunt for a first-round bye in the playoffs. The loser, especially if it’s Eastern, probably will need to win its last two games even to reach the postseason.
In that sense, the playoffs are already here.
“It’s like a lot of our games,” head coach Beau Baldwin said. “They all have the feel of a playoff-type game.”
That’s made it easier for the players to recover from the loss at Southern Utah, Baldwin said.
“(Emotionally) they’re that perfect in between, where you want to make sure it hurts on Sunday, because that it means they care and it means something to them, but at the same time you watch file and you look to correct things,” he said.
For the Eastern defense that means wiping the slate clean, forgetting about the pass-oriented Thunderbirds and focusing on Cal Poly’s spread triple option. The Mustangs average 323 yards a game on the ground – third in FCS – but have also scored 12 touchdowns through the air.
That’s typical for a successful option team: pound the ball inside, then go over the top.
“It’s pretty easy to become too run-happy and then get beat over the top,” Eastern safety Jordan Tonani said. “You have to make sure your eyes are right or they will take the top off you.”
Injuries are still a problem on defense. Tackle Andru Pulu is listed as probable despite an ankle injury that kept him out of the Southern Utah game. The same goes for linebacker Cody McCarthy, who has missed two straight games with a knee injury. Linebacker Zach Johnson is questionable with a hamstring injury.
Baldwin said he’s “very optimistic” about all three players returning.
“But we just get excited about who’s out there, and if we’re able to add with guys who are coming off injuries that’s awesome, but if not I’m excited about those guys who are forced into those roles where they have to step up,” he said.
Even so, Baldwin conceded that depth will be more important against a run-oriented team such as Cal Poly.
“Maybe some guys who haven’t played as much all year might be forced into more action because you need more rotation on defense on almost every position on defense,” he said.