Football is “making strides” at Idaho State, coach Mike Kramer will tell you.
Last week’s three- touchdown win over Sacramento State “was a validation of how far we’ve come,” said Kramer, now in his fourth year rebuilding one of the most downtrodden programs in the Big Sky Conference.
Those strides are lengthening every day, and Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin hears the footsteps going into today’s game at sold-out Roos Field.
“This is a different Idaho State team, and that’s not just coach-talk – it’s going to be a tremendous challenge,” said Baldwin of a game with plenty at stake for both teams.
For ISU (2-2 overall, 1-0 Big Sky), it’s a chance for its first three-game winning streak in 11 years and first road win since 2006. For the second-ranked Eagles (4-1, 1-0), it’s another step toward a high seed in the FCS playoffs.
Last year in Pocatello, Eastern almost tripped over that step, trailing by a touchdown late in the first half before pulling away for a 55-34 win.
“They’re better, and I thought they were pretty good last year,” said Baldwin, citing the Bengals’ newfound balance on offense and better teamwork on defense.
Baldwin is backed up by some daunting numbers from ISU’s 44-24 win over a Sacramento State team that was 3-1 going in: 639 yards of total offense, including 191 on the ground; junior running back Xavier Finney leads the Big Sky with 514 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
“Their run game is strong, they’re going to keep us on our toes,” said Eastern safety Miquiyah Zamora, who’s concerned about the Bengals’ play-action threat.
So is Baldwin.
“You have a veteran quarterback (junior Justin Arias, 106 for 175 for 1,195 yards and 10 TDs) and you add that running game aspect – that’s the biggest piece to that puzzle,” Baldwin said.
He should know. Baldwin has led the Eagles deep into the playoffs the past two seasons partly through offensive balance. This year, Eastern has not only the arm of Walter Payton Award front-runner Vernon Adams (133 for 196 for 1,803 yards and 20 TDs), but a ground game that’s accounted for 972 yards in five games.
Appreciating Adams’ skills, Kramer called him “a surgeon, not a gunslinger – he knows what he wants to do.”
Facing Adams and company is a Bengals defense that Kramer, who led the EWU program from 1994-99, admits is still catching up to the offense. Baldwin says it’s “much improved at every level.”
“They’re playing more as 11. In the past, they’ve been a guy off, or missed a gap in the run game,” Baldwin said of the Bengals’ 4-3 scheme. “Now they understand the scheme as a group, and the talent level has improved.”
The Bengals’ leading tackler is strong safety Taison Manu with 39, a reflection of one-sided losses at Utah (56-14) and Utah State (40-20) to start the season.
In last year’s game, the Eagles had a school-record 743 yards total offense. … Eastern has won seven straight in the series since a 34-30 loss in Pocatello in 2005. … Kramer is 2-7 in his coaching career against the Eagles, and was 4-2 against the Bengals when he was EWU’s head coach. … Baldwin is 2-0 against Kramer.
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