Eastern Eagles may be in a lower division, but not in awe of Pac-12 Huskies
Just another game?
Not when half your team grew up within an hour’s drive of Husky Stadium, where Eastern Washington plays on Saturday.
And definitely not when your offensive line coach goes down in a heap after pulling a leg muscle while playing the part of a blitzing Washington linebacker.
That would be Eagles assistant Aaron Best, whose knee was a bit gimpy but his voice louder than ever as the Eagles practiced Tuesday afternoon at Roos Field.
Everyone else had an extra bounce in their step – the one that was missing last week all the way through their 41-9 win over Montana Western.
And that’s a good thing – to a point.
“The excitement level is up there,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “But it’s still a process, and you have to be careful of peaking too early.
“But there’s no problem in getting them up, especially when it’s in your home state,” said Baldwin, a Tacoma native himself.
Instead, the Eagles focused on the big picture: improvement from one game to the next, regardless of the jump in class from NAIA to Pac-12.
After watching film of last week’s game, Baldwin said he saw a “lot more good than I felt immediately after the game.”
“You come back and see the things you did well,” Baldwin said.
That included a perfect 4-for-4 performance in the red zone by the offense, which also was 9 for 12 on third-down conversions. Meanwhile, the defense allowed UMW to convert only two of 14 third-down chances.
On the minus side, Eastern put the ball on the turf five times, and committed 10 penalties for 112 yards.
“We can’t play that way,” quarterback Vernon Adams said.
Eagles defensive coordinator John Graham saw more blemishes: “I don’t think we tackled well at times, because our kids thought they could bully the kids instead of using proper technique.”
The need for improvement was underscored by the latest FCS media poll, which saw the Eagles knocked off the No. 1 spot largely because three-time defending champ North Dakota whipped Iowa State, 34-14.
In other words, if the goal is a trip to Frisco for the FCS title game, then Husky Stadium is just a pit stop, albeit a large one.
“They’re decent, but we’re going to treat them like any other team,” said linebacker Albert Havili, who grew up in Federal Way, Washington, and drew some recruiting interest from UW.
“It all starts here, at practice,” Havili said. “If we practice to our standard, then play hard and play fast this week the game should be nothing to us.”
Neither will the noise; the Eagles will use the loudspeakers at Roos Field to simulate crowd noise, much as they do for trips to Missoula and Bozeman.
The Eagles also don’t figure to be intimidated by the venue, 70,138-seat Husky Stadium, where the Eagles played three years ago and lost 30-27 when Bo Levi Mitchell’s pass into the end zone was intercepted.
Their confidence is bolstered by a four-point loss at Washington State in 2012 and a landmark, 49-46 win last year at Oregon State.
“In all three of those, we never felt out of place,” Baldwin said.
Junior cornerback Frank Cange was lost for the season after an ACL injury against Western Montana. Defensive lineman Jordan Pulu is expected to miss the UW game with a hyperextended elbow suffered against Sam Houston State. Six other players sat out the Western Montana game for precautionary reasons and are listed as questionable this week. They include running backs Jabari Wilson (hamstring) and Quincy Forte (knee), center Jase Butorac (ankle), wide receiver Cooper Kupp (ankle), linebacker Ronnie Hamlin (ankle) and safety Jordan Tonani (knee).