For those inclined to crunch numbers and draw conclusions about the performance of Eastern Washington’s defense, coach Beau Baldwin has some simple advice: Don’t go there.
Five games into an 11-game regular season, the Eagles are last in the Big Sky Conference in total defense (giving up 557.4 yards a game), rushing defense (351) and third downs given up (30.4 per game).
They’re also 3-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference going into Saturday’s game at Idaho State, the product of an improving defense and an offense that’s finding more consistency.
“You have to look at the big picture of who you played … and get away from looking at the season as a whole,” said Baldwin of the eighth-ranked Eagles at practice Tuesday. Baldwin noted that the overall statistics reflect games against the potent offenses of Oregon, Northern Iowa and Montana State, as well as the ground game of Cal Poly.
About the 503 rushing yards gained Saturday by Cal Poly’s triple option? “That’s just a different animal,” Baldwin said.
If so, that animal was tamed in the second half of the Eagles’ 42-41 overtime win, and Baldwin crunched a few numbers to prove it. In the first half, Cal Poly averaged 6.7 yards a carry, but managed only 4.5 in the second half. In other words, the Eagle defense is getting stronger as the game wears on.
That welcome trend began at the Big Sky opener two weeks earlier at Sacramento State, when Eastern trailed 20-7 at halftime but got a second-half shutout to win 28-20.
Said linebacker Miquiyah Zamora, “I think we’re doing better in the second half because as we see things out there, it slows down a little bit and the nerves start to leave.”
It didn’t hurt that the Eagles defense got ahead of the chains in the second halves of both games: after averaging 7 yards on first down in the opening half, Poly was held to 3.6 in the second half.
The fourth-quarter numbers on Saturday were downright scary: On seven first down plays, the Mustangs gained no more than 3 yards on any play, and twice lost yardage. More than anything, Eastern staying ahead of the chains kept Cal Poly from getting further ahead on the scoreboard.
That in turn helped the offense overcome a 15-point deficit in the last 6 minutes. Until then, the Eagles were having a feast-or-famine afternoon, with big-play touchdown drives followed by three-and-outs – four of them all told.
Again, it was a matter of staying ahead of the chains. “That was our top goal this week on offense – we have to be better at getting early chunks,” Baldwin said. “We’ve been good when we’ve gotten a first down, but we’ve had too many three-and-outs.”
Notes: The Eagles are as healthy as they’ve been since the opener at Oregon, with only four starters out of the lineup against Cal Poly. Offensive lineman Clay DeBord was out last week with a concussion, snapping his streak of consecutive starts at 24. Kicker Tyler McNannay (hip flexor) missed his second straight game and right tackle Cassidy Curtis (foot) missed his fourth straight. Wide receiver Shaq Hill (knee) also has missed four straight games. DeBord and McNannay are listed as questionable this week, while Curtis is doubtful and Hill is out.
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