This game was supposed to mean so much more, for both teams.
Last year, North Dakota and Eastern Washington swept through their Big Sky Conference schedules with nary a loss. Saturday’s game was billed as a tiebreaker of sorts as a both teams prepared for deep runs into the FCS playoffs.
Then reality happened. Picked to win the league, North Dakota has suffered half a decade’s worth of injuries. Win or lose, Saturday’s game at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks will be the season finale for the 3-7 Fighting Hawks.
Eastern was picked for second place, but the 19th-ranked Eagles have dropped two straight games and will be fighting for their playoff lives.
Adding to the drama, EWU (5-4 overall, 4-2 Big Sky) will be breaking in a new quarterback, as redshirt freshman Eric Barriere replaces suspended All-American Gage Gubrud.
How Barriere handles the situation will be a key to the outcome. Adding to the pressure, it’s Senior Day at UND, which plays in a dome.
Eastern hopes establish a running game to mitigate the UND pass rush, but don’t expect the Eagles to rewrite their playbook.
“We hope to stay balanced, and get him some throws that he can feel comfortable with,” Eastern coach Aaron Best said. “We recruited Eric to play in our system.”
That system has garnered a lot of respect around the Big Sky, which has seen the Eagles win 39 of their last 46 games conference games.
UND has yet to beat the Eagles in three meetings.
“You always want to challenge yourself to play those guys, but how does that (Gubrud’s suspension) change their attack? I don’t know, I guess we’ll know Saturday,” UND coach Bubba Schweigert said.
Even with Gubrud in the lineup, Eastern has struggled to move the ball lately. In losses to Southern Utah and Weber State, the Eagles have just five offensive touchdowns, and just one in the second half.
Overlooked in the quarterback drama is Eastern’s struggling defense. For the season, opponents are converting 42 percent of their third downs (45.6 percent in Big Sky games). In the last three games, Montana State, Southern Utah and Weber State have converted 54.5 percent on third and fourth down.
While the offense ranks in the middle of the conference in turnovers, the Eagles’ defense is next to lasst with only seven turnovers forced in six games.
It won’t help that middle linebacker Kurt Calhoun, the Eagles’ second-leading tackler with 68, also is suspended this week. In his place, redshirt sophomore Jack Sendelbach will get his first start against the Hawks’ power running game.
If they win, the Eagles figure to do some scoreboard watching later Saturday. They still have a small chance of sharing the Big Sky title, but front-runners Weber State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona would need to stumble against lesser opponents.
The bigger question: Would a 7-4 Eastern team earn an at-large playoff spot when the selections are made on Nov. 19? Weber, SUU, NAU and Montana all have better overall records, so Eagles fans might need some help to improve their odds going into next week’s finale against winless Portland State.
But as Best said this week: “If you don’t win this one, there probably isn’t going to be that plus-one at the end of the year.”