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EWU defense on mission to stop Northern Colorado

The Northern Colorado offense wants to reach the next level.

So does the Eastern Washington defense, which means somebody could come down to earth with a thud in today’s Big Sky Conference game at sold-out Roos Field.

Truth be told, both have struggled this season – today’s main event will be EWU’s prolific offense against UNC’s ballhawking defense – but they’re trending upward.

Last week, the Bears put up 38 points in a narrow loss to Sacramento State, their best effort in a conference game in better than two years. Meanwhile, the Eagles defense gave up 500-plus yards for the fifth time this season in a 42-30 win at Southern Utah, but took heart from two crucial interceptions by redshirt freshman cornerback Victor Gamboa.

“We feel pretty good,” sophomore safety Zach Bruce said. “We feel our defense took it to another level, and the picks definitely raised our morale.”

On paper, that morale should rise further today against UNC, which ranks 12th out of 13 Big Sky teams in both total offense (325.7 ypg) and scoring offense (20.3 ppg). Injuries have left the Bears offense in hibernation for most of the season.

Then came the Sac State game. After missing two games with a shoulder injury, sophomore quarterback Sean Rubalcaba threw for 301 yards while completing 25 of 35 passes for three touchdowns and no picks.

“He’s the kind of guy we need to get to the level we’re trying to get to,” said Collins, whose team fell to 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the Big Sky after a 43-38 loss.

In that same game, Rubalcaba had 14 carries for 48 yards – just enough to keep defenses guessing.

That’s been part of the problem for Eastern’s defense: hesitancy in the face of dual-threat quarterbacks, including Jared Johnson of Sam Houston State, Cyler Miles of Washington and Dakota Prukop of Montana State. Together, they accounted for 203 yards on 39 carries, many of them on successful third-down conversions.

This week, the Eagles will face another challenge on third-and-short: running back Darius Graham, a 6-foot-1, 228-pounder. Also in the mix is 210-pound Robert Holland, who has 90 carries for 447 yards.

Said EWU linebacker Cody McCarthy: “We just need go out there, having fun and making some big plays and getting some turnovers.”

That’s happening too. The Eagles (6-1, 3-0) now have seven interceptions, second in the conference behind UNC, and blocked punts in two straight games.

“That’s as good as a takeaway,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin, who then proceeded to challenge his prolific offense to do something else – hold on to the football. The Eagles have fumbled 14 times so far this year, losing eight; opponents have lost just half as many.

“We’ve given the ball away as much as anyone in the conference – we’ve got to keep challenging ourselves in areas where we’re not very good.”

Only then will the Eagles hit the next level.

Notes

Eastern has won 13 straight conference games dating back to 2012. … Eastern has won all six meetings since UNC joined the Big Sky in 2006, by an average score of 30-13. The teams haven’t met since 2011, when the Eagles prevailed 48-27 at Roos Field. In 2010, eventual FCS champ Eastern needed two touchdowns in the last 3:08 to win at UNC 35-28. … Eastern leads the all-time series 8-1.

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