No. 2 against No. 4.
If this were big-time college football, the GameDay trucks would already by parked outside Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas.
On Saturday morning, Lee Corso might don an Eastern Eagle head on national television. A few hours later, the Heisman Trophy race would find a front-runner, depending on the respective performances of Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams and Sam Houston State running back Timothy Flanders.
Instead, everything will be scaled down to fit the occasion, which still merits The Sports Network’s label as the FCS nonconference “Game of the Year.” The Eagles and the Bearkats have moved into the ranks of the national elite, with Eastern winning the 2010 title and Sam Houston State reaching the title game each of the past two years.
As Bearkats head coach Willie Fritz said this week, “This is the most anticipated regular-season game ever played here.”
That goes double for the second-ranked Eagles, who have a little payback in mind after losing a semifinal game to the Bearkats last year, 45-42. A victory also would break the Bearkats’ 17-game home winning streak.
“We love getting another shot at them,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “It’s not a revenge factor, but it is human nature for players to want to keep fighting back. And our players are no different.”
The key for Eastern: a good start, at least something better than the first-half debacle last December in Cheney. Sam Houston State took a 35-0 lead and some fans took to their heels for the Roos Field parking lot before Adams led the Eagles to a rally that fell just short.
Adams threw for six touchdowns in that game, then picked up where he left off in a 49-46 win at Oregon State in the season opener. But after an easy win over Division II Western Oregon, Adams struggled against Toledo, and the Eagles lost 33-21.
In that game, the Rockets mixed coverages and appeared to confuse Adams, but the redshirt sophomore tried to dispel that notion.
“It wasn’t anything they did,” Adams said this week. “I just felt like my technique wasn’t as good as it was the first two games.”
This week, Adams and the Eagles will face an aggressive Bearkats defense that returns only five starters – none of them in the secondary. However, cornerbacks Shelby Davis and Deantrey Loche, as well as safeties Tristan Eche, Desmond Fite, Cory Hamlett and Michael Wade saw action last year as reserves.
The Bearkats are strongest up front, with a pair of Southland All-Conference linemen In Jarrett Brown and Gary Lorance.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles will have to contend with a versatile offense highlighted by Flanders, a 5-foot-9, 210-pound Payton Award candidate who is the leading rusher in school and conference history with 820 carries for 4,720 yards and 59 touchdowns.
Sam Houston State figures to test the Eagles’ rushing defense, which gave up 6.4 yards per rush against Toledo.
Risks and rewards
High-profile nonconference games between FCS teams are rare for several reasons. Geography is one, but perhaps a bigger one is the risk of losing.
That’s why many FCS schools schedule up to FBS (for the money) and down to Division II (for the easier wins). This game offers neither, and will hand the loser its second defeat of the season. That means little margin for error in snagging a home game in the FCS playoffs.
The bottom line: Matchups like this are good for the game.
“These games aren’t commonplace,” Fritz said. “It’s hard to find these kind of games, and when you start having some success, it becomes real hard to find games.”
Fritz added that when Eastern Athletic Director Bill Chaves contacted counterpart Bobby Williams, “We jumped all over it.”
Saturday’s game is the first of two; the Eagles and Bearkats will meet again next year in Cheney.
“It’s great to challenge yourself against a quality opponent,” Fritz said.
Eastern wide receiver and Texas native Cory Mitchell has been “waiting all summer” for a chance to play in his home state for the first time since high school.
Mitchell, the brother of former Eagles quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, said he’s snagged about three dozen tickets for family and friends from Katy, Texas.
“I take it personally,” Mitchell said. “I palyed high school ball in Texas so I know what it’s like, so I want to have my best game this week for sure.”
Big Sky notes
Montana enters conference play as the only undefeated team left in the league. Montana (3-0) has already beaten Appalachian State and North Dakota, two teams which handed Montana losses in 2012. Montana opens conference play at Northern Arizona on Saturday, another team that beat the Grizzlies in 2012. … Northern Arizona senior Zach Bauman is 46 yards shy of 4,000 for his career. NAU hosts Montana with Bauman needing 64 yards to pass Grizzlies great Lex Hilliard on the Big Sky all-time rushing list.