Even on the coldest football practice of the season, the Eastern Washington players and coaches had no problem warming to the subject of Saturday’s game against Montana State.
How could they not? The winner will have the inside track to the Big Sky title and move closer to a spot in the FCS playoffs. The game already is a sellout, an unprecedented third straight at Roos Field.
“It’s new territory for us, and we feed off that energy,” coach Beau Baldwin said before Tuesday’s practice.
The game also is new territory for the conference, which hasn’t seen a matchup of top-five teams since 1994. Third-ranked Eastern and No. 4 MSU are both 7-2 overall and 5-0 in the conference. The winner would be a game ahead of the field with two games left in the regular season, ratcheting the stakes even higher.
The Eagles have been there before, and had no butterflies this year in big games at Oregon State and Montana. Even in a September loss at Sam Houston State, the Eagles started strongly and trailed by just one point late in the first half.
“You have to take the same approach, week in and week out,” Baldwin said. “Our guys are pretty even-keeled, regardless.”
The maturing process is ongoing for the new Eastern safeties, a unit savaged by injuries. Allen Brown and Todd Raynes were felled by hamstring injuries at Montana, and Tevin McDonald was lost to a broken fibula last weekend against Idaho State.
Redshirt freshman Zach Bruce stepped in last week for Brown, who’s listed as questionable this week, while the loss of Raynes meant additional playing time for sophomore Miles Weatheroy and junior Isaiah Jenkins.
“Overall they did a pretty good job once they settled down,” safeties coach Jeff Schmedding said. “We had some communication issues, but they graded out pretty well, so I was pleased at how they handled a pretty tough situation.”
The situation is tougher yet with the loss of McDonald, a transfer from UCLA. “He’s hanging in there, but obviously it’s disappointing,” Schmedding said.
The timetable for McDonald’s return is uncertain; Baldwin said he would have a better idea later this week.
In the meantime, more shuffling is in store for the secondary. Redshirt freshman Jordan Thompson will see more action, especially in nickle situations; Weatheroy, a cornerback two weeks ago, moves into McDonald’s spot, but he’s still listed as the backup to T.J. Lee III at CB.
Says Weatheroy of last week’s game against pass-oriented Idaho State: “I think it went pretty well, but there is definitely lots of things to improve on. … Definitely, corner is more man-to-man, locking on a guy, but at safety, you have to have a greater overall picture of the game.”
The overall picture in the secondary is still a bit fuzzy. Baldwin said he thought Bruce and Weatheroy did well at Idaho State, and that Thompson and redshirt freshman Diamonte Wiggins also “could possibly get a lot of reps, and if we added a fifth or sixth guy, we’ll see who might fit that role.”
Only about 200 tickets remain for the last home Big Sky game of the season, on Nov. 23 against Portland State. … Baldwin’s 51-21 overall record (.708) at Eastern is narrowly better than MSU’s Rob Ash, who is 57-24 (.704).