SACRAMENTO, Calif. – As they stretched on the turf at Hornet Stadium on Friday afternoon, the Eastern Washington players felt the heat.
It was 96 degrees in the shade but decidedly warmer on the turf where Saturday night against Sacramento State the Eagles will open defense of the Big Sky Conference title they won last year, the year before and the year before that.
That means they feel a different kind of heat – and they seem to like it that way.
“I think there’s always a target on our backs,” Eastern offensive lineman Aaron Neary said. “We’ve won three, but we’re definitely going for a fourth.”
Indeed, most of the current players have known nothing but winning during a three-year run of dominance that’s taken them to a 22-2 conference record and three deep trips into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
On the other hand, the Eagles are only 1-2 this season, but that’s the byproduct of a difficult schedule rather than their own issues, especially on offense. Even against the likes of Oregon, Northern Iowa and Montana State, the Eagles are putting up numbers that most of the conference can only dream about:
• Forty-four points and 589 yards of total offense per game.
• A pass-efficiency rating of 201.5.
• And the stats that really matter: a 51 percent conversion rate on third and fourth down and 13 touchdowns in 14 visits to the red zone.
Said wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, “Forget the stats, that’s going to come with the game. But we’re definitely going to intimidate some defensive backs.”
Throw in a rejuvenated running game, and the Eagles should overcome a Sac State defense that gave up 32 points last week at Weber State.
Running back Jabari Wilson, who suffered a concussion last week after running for 188 yards against MSU, is good to go for Saturday’s game.
Even better for Wilson, from nearby Carson, California, he’ll have family in the stands. “It’ll be great, but we just have to keep it rolling,” he said.
But if the Eastern offense seems to be an unstoppable force, coach Beau Baldwin hasn’t dwelled on it.
“We stay focused in the moment,” Baldwin said. “We haven’t proven anything this year. I love the mentality that we still have to earn everything.”
Baldwin expects a ball-possession game, at least from Sac State’s offense, which makes every possession a treasure.
“They’re going to make us grind it out,” said Baldwin, who said the Hornets defensive line is as big as anything in the Big Sky.
Behind them, linebacker Darrell Sankey leads the conference in tackles with 43, and figures to bring some more heat.
The Eagles welcome back safety Zach Bruce (knee). Kicker Tyler McNannay is injured and didn’t make the trip, so Jordan Dascalo will handle punting duties and Brandyn Bangsund will kick. … The Eagles have never lost at 21,195-seat Hornet Stadium, going 11-0 since the series began in 1980. … In their last meeting, Eastern held off Sac State 31-28 in Cheney in 2012. … Eastern leads the overall series 17-4.
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