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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Stats don’t matter to Eastern defenders

Eastern Washington Eagles linebacker Alek Kacmarcik, flying out of bounds after intercepting a pass against Montana last week, knows the Eagles have a big challenge at Cal Poly on Saturday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington Eagles linebacker Alek Kacmarcik, flying out of bounds after intercepting a pass against Montana last week, knows the Eagles have a big challenge at Cal Poly on Saturday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Statistically speaking, the Eastern Washington defensive players would rather not.

The Eagles don’t have time to crunch numbers or talk about them because they’re too busy crunching quarterbacks.

And winning games – seven out of eight so far – which is the only stat that matters.

“To be honest, I try not to look at them, because they don’t tell the story of the game,” said linebacker Miquiyah Zamora.

The story line last Saturday at Roos Field wasn’t the 540 yards of total offense Montana hung on Zamora and his mates. It was a goal-line stand late in the first half that denied the Griz a touchdown and helped carry the Eagles to a 35-16 Big Sky Conference win.

It began when end Samson Ebukam ran down a Griz ballcarrier after a 65-yard run. “That gave us another chance,” Zamora said Tuesday as the third-ranked Eagles prepared for Saturday’s game at Cal Poly.

“We like to pride ourselves in being tough in the red zone, so it was important to get that chance,” Zamora said.

The Eagles made the most of it, even after Montana gained another first down and had first-and-goal at the EWU 5-yard line.

The Griz got no farther.

Out of downs and out of time, Montana settled for three and the tone was set. The Griz got seven more chances in the second half, and they ended this way: punt, punt, interception, touchdown, interception, punt and end of game.

In other words, bending until the other guy breaks.

Eastern’s defense is getting better by the week, but not everyone is noticing. On the internet, fans lingered over total yardage and time of possession – stats that matter far less than third-down defense and turnover margin.

The media hasn’t figured it out either. This from the Missoulian:

“Meanwhile Montana’s offense – so efficient and dangerous in early October in back-to-back-to-back wins that elevated the Griz to 5-1 – couldn’t find its way past a typically porous EWU defense.”

Porous? That was last year, when the Eagle defense was giving away first downs like Halloween candy – 68 percent in the last three games. This year it’s 42 percent even as the EWU defense spends an average of 33 minutes on the field.

After a slow start, the turnover margin is plus-seven. The Eagles picked off just seven passes last year; they have 12 already, thanks to more aggressive schemes and players who matured and bought into defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s system.

“We’re forcing turnovers again,” coach Beau Baldwin said after the win over Montana.

The big picture looks even better. The Eagles are 5-0 in the Big Sky because they’ve gotten better as each game unfolds. In the second halves of those five games, opponents have a combined 33 possessions, but just five touchdowns.

Thirteen other possessions ended in punts, 12 others in turnovers or failed fourth downs.

That’s led to the most important stat of all: Eastern is giving up just 25.8 points a game in Big Sky play.

“We’re finding ways to grind out wins,” Baldwin said.

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