SEATTLE – As the Eastern Washington football players exited the big stage Saturday afternoon, they did it to mixed reviews.
The offense was staggering; the defense, simply staggered – by injuries, the emotion of two huge games in three weeks, and finally by a dominant Washington offense that rolled up 536 yards in a 59-52 Eagles loss that could have gone the other way.
As bye weeks go, this one comes in the nick of time for a defense that’s been a lightning rod for fan criticism, from last year’s FCS playoff loss to Towson, a high-scoring win over Sam Houston State and Saturday’s scorefest at Husky Stadium.
The second-ranked Eagles are 2-1 – satisfying enough considering the opposition – but in the long march to the FCS playoffs, they’re taking a decidedly different path than No. 1 North Dakota State.
The three-time defending national champs are 2-0 after a 34-14 thumping of Iowa State and a 24-7 win over Weber State. Those are pedestrian numbers when compared with the Eagles, who in three games have racked up 1,780 yards of total offense, but have conceded 1,344 overall and a whopping 233 yards a game on the ground.
If defense wins championships, the Eagles have a lot of work to do to match the 2010 champions, who yielded just 374 total yards per game – and stuffed the run to the tune of 3.5 yards per carry and 139.6 per game.
Last year’s team conceded a respectable 4.5 yards per carry, but this year it’s ballooned to 5.5 following Saturday’s game, when the Huskies ran the ball inside and out for 356 yards on 57 rushes.
“It’s a matter of making plays,” defensive tackle Dylan Zylstra said.
That’s been tougher because of the departure of six starters from last year, plus the loss of starting defensive end Evan Day to an ACL injury in the spring. The Eagles also lost their three top cornerbacks from last year, and then saw Frank Cange go down for the season on Aug. 30 with a knee injury.
It didn’t help that end Samson Ebukam was held out of the Huskies game with an ankle injury, further hurting the Eagles’ defense on the edge.
More worrying of late is the Eagles’ struggles against mobile quarterbacks. In the FCS quarterfinals against Jacksonville State, they dodged a bullet when elusive freshman quarterback Eli Jenkins went down to injury late in the first half; a week later, they had no answer for Towson backup Connor Frazier, whose running ability went far in denying the Eagles a trip to Frisco.
Fast forward to this year, and the Eagles struggled against Sam Houston State sophomore QB Jared Johnson (10 carries for 79 yards, including a 53-yard TD run). On Saturday, in only his second start, UW sophomore Cyler Miles ran 12 times for 59 yards and three scores.
“He’s very athletic, but we knew that going in,” Eastern safety Tevin McDonald said.
But look out, so is new North Dakota State quarterback Conner Wentz, who has 61 yards on the ground and manages the Bison offense the same way Miles did with the Huskies.
The Bison also find a way to win the turnover battle; they’re plus-2 after two games, while the Eagles are minus-1 – a tiny sample size, but remember that the 2010 Eastern squad was plus-12 while taking the ball away 47 times.
“We have to create turnovers,” coach Beau Baldwin said after Saturday’s game.
WR/KR Shaq Hill was held out of the UW game with a hamstring injury, while WR Cory Mitchell suffered a collarbone injury in the same contest; his status is uncertain.
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