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Eagles tackle altitude, Lumberjacks

Quarterback Jordan West leads an Eastern Washington program that has won its last four games at NAU. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Quarterback Jordan West leads an Eastern Washington program that has won its last four games at NAU. (Tyler Tjomsland)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – After another close game, the Eastern Washington football team could use a breather today.

It probably won’t happen. Not against a Northern Arizona team that has a good chance to return to the FCS playoffs, and certainly not in the thin air of Flagstaff, elevation 7,000 feet.

At least extra oxygen masks will be nearby, along with the official NAU warning signs about altitude sickness, which can intimidate visiting athletes as much as help them.

On the other hand, the second-ranked Eagles have become so acclimated to the rarefied air of success, they might just blow past the Lumberjacks and win their 15th straight Big Sky Conference game.

The Eagles moved gracefully past another distraction Friday: the team plane suffered a mechanical problem, delaying their departure from Spokane by four hours. “It’s no big deal,” Baldwin said Friday night. Instead of the traditional team walkthrough, Baldwin put the players through their paces back in Cheney while they waited for a replacement jet.

Confidence is high: the Eagles have won the last four meetings in Flagstaff while averaging almost 45 points per game. Eastern fell well below that standard last week in a 26-18 win over Northern Colorado, but help is on the way with running back Quincy Forte (shoulder) and wide receiver Cory Mitchell (collarbone) expected back in the lineup after missing more than a month.

“It just feels great, and I just feel blessed to be back,” Mitchell said as the team arrived in Flagstaff, where three years ago Mitchell caught his first collegiate touchdown pass – thrown by brother Bo Levi.

Forte’s return will bolster a running game that got 280 yards two weeks ago at Southern Utah and 165 against UNC. The Eagles face an NAU defense that gives up 205 yards per game on the ground – near the bottom of the FCS rankings.

That’s a surprise to Baldwin, who said he’s impressed by NAU’s aggressiveness, especially inside the steamy, 10,000-seat Walkup Skydome.

“Offensively, we have to work on playing faster … taking the crowd and the energy out of the game,” Baldwin said as the Eagles (7-1 overall, 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference) try to stay in first place in the Big Sky and on track for another high seed in the FCS playoffs.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Baldwin said.

That would describe almost every game so far for NAU (4-3 Big Sky, 2-1 overall); five of seven have been decided by a touchdown or less, including a 21-17 win last week at Portland State.

“Our guys just found a way to get it done,” said NAU coach Jerome Souers, who led the Lumberjacks to a 7-1 record last year in the Big Sky, 10-3 overall.

Notes

Baldwin, the reigning two-time Big Sky Coach of the Year, will coach in his 100th game as a collegiate head coach. Baldwin is 63-23 record at Eastern and 10-3 at his alma mater, Central Washington. … After spending most of the year in the hole, Eastern is dead-even in turnover margin thanks to cornerback Victor Gamboa’s game-clinching interception last week against Northern Colorado. NAU is minus-4 in turnover margin. … Eastern ranks 99th out of 121 FCS schools in penalty yards, with 73 yards per game.


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