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Friday, February 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eastern defense has feasted on turnovers

Eastern Washington  defensive back Mitch Fettig  secures an interception against Montana. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington defensive back Mitch Fettig secures an interception against Montana. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

One of the biggest takeaways from this year’s Eastern Washington football season? Takeaways.

The Eagles are forcing them in bunches these days – a big reason they’re 8-1 and ranked third in the nation.

They did it again last week, grabbing an early interception and later forcing two fumbles in a 42-21 win at Cal Poly. With two games left in the regular season, the Eagles rank 12th nationally in turnover margin at plus-11.

“It’s like anything: Once you start having success in a certain area, that breeds more success,” EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said Tuesday as the Eagles prepared for Saturday’s Big Sky Conference home game against Idaho State.

Last spring, one of Schmedding’s biggest challenges was to change the mindset. The Eagles were coming off a 6-5 season that ended with a minus-7 turnover margin that included just seven interceptions.

Of course, turnovers don’t happen by themselves. They must be created – in the film room the practice field and in the minds of every defense.

“It started in the spring, a constant, relentless approach to it,” said Schmedding, who added that it didn’t hurt to have nine returning starters.

“We were constantly talking about it.” Schmedding said.

More tangibly, the Eagles are doing something about it. Success starts up front, and Eastern is getting a solid pass rush with just four down linemen, especially Samson Ebukam, Jay-Tee Tiuli and Andre Lino.

“Our D-line absolutely believes that they can affect the game on every play,” Schmedding said.

They’ve done that since day one. Late in the first half at Washington State, the Eagles pressured Luke Falk into throwing a pick that was cashed in for a field goal in a 45-42 win.

Last weekend, cornerback Josh Lewis’ end-zone interception stole the momentum from Cal Poly in the first quarter and Eastern never trailed.

“It all starts up front, and they’re doing a great job,” safety Zach Bruce.

The cornerbacks, now a year older and wiser, are holding coverage by that crucial extra second. Schmedding’s 4-2-5 scheme also has paid off by allowing more aggressive play from the entire unit.

“That’s something we’re really preaching – that great plays happen around the ball,” Schmedding said.

Another strength of the 4-2-5 is its flexibility. Earlier in the season, the Eagles muscled up against UC Davis’ two-back sets. Against Montana, they brought pressure with three down linemen and the occasional blitz.

“If you don’t have an adjustable defense, you’re going to have some trouble in this league,” Schmedding said.

There’s more work to be done. These Eagles are still a long way from the turnover-feasting national champs of 2010, who took the ball away 47 times. But they’re ahead of any team since then.

Turnovers are big predictor of football games. Since 2010, Eastern is 36-0 when winning the turnover battle but just 14-18 when they’ve lost.

“The biggest thing now is to keep it going,” Schmedding said.

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