DAVIS, Calif. – The drama kings of college football surely could use a little less excitement this week, which can only mean that Saturday night’s Eastern Washington-UC Davis game will go down to the wire.
Coming off an exhilarating 52-51 win last weekend at Montana State, the second-ranked Eagles will be fighting off an emotional letdown as well as a physical Aggies team in their Big Sky Conference opener.
“That’s emotionally draining, not just physically draining,” said EWU head coach Beau Baldwin, whose team has now won 14 games since 2010 when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter.
“Even as a coach I feel like I played,” Baldwin said of the MSU game.
At first glance, Aggie Stadium doesn’t seem like the setting for an ambush, but then neither did Roos Field on Nov. 10, 2012. Eastern was coming off a big win over Cal Poly and looking ahead to the regular-season finale at Portland State.
UC Davis was the game in between. After taking an early 14-3 lead, the Eagles played their worst quarter of football all season, giving up 22 unanswered points. They eventually rallied for a 31-28 win, and learned a lesson in the process: Take nothing for granted.
But has the lesson stuck? If you divide the current season into thirds, this is the soft middle – four games against teams (UC Davis, Idaho State, Southern Colorado and Northern Colorado) that last year went 11-21 in conference play. It’s the perfect time to heal, shore up the run defense and clean up some inconsistencies in the passing game.
In other words, a little less drama.
If only it were that easy. Everyone seems to saving a few extra wrinkles for the 3-1 Eagles, who figure to have a target on their backs all season.
They’re also facing a 1-2 UC Davis team that’s a bit of an enigma, with both losses coming against FBS schools Stanford and Colorado State. Game prep is slightly tougher because the teams didn’t meet last year, but at least the Aggies offense is a known quantity.
Unlike previous opponents, UC Davis quarterback London Lacy is a pocket passer, not the dual-threat type that’s given the Eagles fits this year.
“We we can stay back in the pass game a little more,” safety Jordan Tonani said before the team walkthrough Friday afternoon at Aggie Stadium.
The UC Davis offense is a traditional pro set geared toward the run. The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Lacy is accurate enough (43-for-69 for 425 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions), but is backed by a strong running game that will be even better with the return of All-Big Sky performer Gaze Manzanares from a foot injury.
Manzanares alone presents a problem for a defense that ranks 109th in the FCS in first downs given up, and indication that teams have been able to nickel and dime their way down the field.
Said Aggie coach Ron Gould, “We have to possess the ball and stay out of second-and-long.”
Gould certainly has the weapons: Throw in 220-pounder Colton Silveria (223 yards on 6.0 yards per carry) and Justin Williams (23 rushes, 115 yards) and the Aggies have the kind of running-back depth that Eastern is suddenly lacking.
Quincy Forte is coming off a 190-yard performance at Montana State, but he suffered a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter in Bozeman. “He won’t start, but he could play; we just have to feel it out,” said Baldwin, who will go with senior Mario Brown.
Sophomore Jalen Moore (high ankle sprain) didn’t make the trip to Davis, leaving the Eagles with only three healthy backs: Brown, sophomore Jabari Wilson and senior Cody Hecker.
“No matter what, we’re going to represent the running backs well,” Brown said Friday.
Baldwin said that junior transfer Taylor McNannay will handle placekicking duties this week after Roldan Alcobendas suffered a knee injury last week. … The Eastern offense is still perfect in the red zone, scoring 17 TDs and two field goals in 19 trips; so are Eagles opponents, who have eight TDs and three field goals on 11 chances.
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