On paper, Saturday’s game at Northern Colorado figured to be one of the two easiest on Eastern Washington’s schedule.
The other was supposed to be Portland State – another reason coaches don’t think much of preseason polls.
And while the Vikings have been the surprise of the Big Sky Conference, Eastern coach Beau Baldwin’s mind is fixed on a surprising Northern Colorado team that was picked to finish last in the Big Sky, but has won two straight games.
“They have my attention,” said Baldwin, who needed only to queue up last year’s game film to get his players to stand up and take notice.
Last year in Cheney, the Eagles needed a late interception from Victor Gamboa to seal a 26-18 win. In their last appearance at Nottingham Field in Greeley, Colorado, the Eagles needed two touchdowns in the final three minutes to pull out a 35-28 victory.
That was in 2010, when the Eagles went on win the FCS title. This squad has the same dream, one that would take a beating with a loss at UNC. The Eagles are ranked seventh in the Football Championship Subdivision, but a loss to the Bears (4-2 overall, 2-2 in the Big Sky) would damage their chances of earning a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs.
Even at 4-2 overall and 3-0 in the Big Sky, there’s not much margin for error in the last five games of the regular season.
Besides, said defensive tackle Matthew Sommer, “I don’t think there’s anyone overlooking them. They’re not the same Northern Colorado team they’ve been in the past.”
In the meantime, Baldwin is focusing on the little things that in his words will take his team “from average to good to great.
“We’re nowhere near where we need to be in certain areas, given our expectations,” Baldwin said. Until last week, one of those areas was turnover ratio. Last week, the Eagles checked that box with four takeaways in a 45-28 win at Idaho State.
The other is third-down conversions, especially on offense. “We like to think of ourselves as a 50 percent outfit,” said Baldwin, noting that the Eagles have cleared that benchmark for two straight games.
Defensively, Baldwin said he welcomed his team’s aggressiveness, especially in the second half. “But we need to be a stingy team in the red zone,” said Baldwin, whose opponents have scored 23 touchdowns and four field goals in 31 trips inside the EWU 20-yard line.
Meanwhile, Northern Colorado football coach Earnest Collins Jr. speaks hopefully of staying with the Eagles. New quarterback Jacob Knipp is steadily improving and the running game is averaging 4.0 yards a carry.
Defensively, end Mikhail Dubose has six tackles for loss in three games, and the Bears’ pass-defense efficiency rating of 124 is among the best of the league.
Since UNC joined the Big Sky in 2006, the Bears have won 13 conference games; Eastern has won 57. … Eastern is 9-1 against the Bears, losing 13-9 in 1981 when both teams competed at the Division II level. … Eastern is leading FCS in passing (with 406 yards per game) is fifth in total offense (530.5) … In three Big Sky games, the Eagles have outscored their opponents 57-21 in the second half. .. Eastern is ranked for the 52nd straight week.
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