Even with snowdrifts piled along the sidelines and temperatures in the mid-30s, Roos Field was full of warm feelings Tuesday night.
The Eastern Washington football players are back from a well-earned Thanksgiving, the product of a 10-1 record and a Big Sky Conference championship.
In short, home-field advantage never felt this good. And to a man, the Eagles hope to keep that feeling all month.
“We feel great,” cornerback Josh Lewis said as the Eagles got back to work ahead of Saturday’s FCS playoff game against Central Arkansas.
That game looks tougher than your typical second-round matchup: The Bears are 10-2 with a balanced offense and run-stuffing defense that ranks second in the nation.
Another equalizer: The Eagles are banged up. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp, linebacker Miquiyah Zamora, roverback J.J. Njoku and running back Jabari Wilson are questionable going into the postseason.
But they’re healing – another benefit of the first-round bye.
Most of the speculation centers on Kupp, the All-American who owns every career record in FCS but also is coming off a left shoulder injury suffered early in the regular-season finale at Portland State on Nov. 18.
“He’s in that questionable mode,” coach Beau Baldwin said, comparing the injury to the right shoulder sprain Kupp suffered Sept. 10 at North Dakota State.
That one kept Kupp out of the next game against Northern Iowa, but he was back the following week at Northern Arizona.
“It’s similar to how he was the first time, but it’s something that we’ll know more coming closer to game time,” Baldwin said.
If Kupp is unable to play, Baldwin said it’s important for the other receivers to be themselves and not try to be Kupp.
“But we’ve been in that situation before,” Baldwin said. “We’re prepping with the mindset that we might have him and we might not. The cupboard is far from bare.”
It’s the same on defense. Leading tackler Zamora was lost to a hamstring injury early at Portland State. That night, backup Ketner Kupp stepped up and made four tackles as EWU prevailed 35-28.
“We just have to keep our eyes right,” Ketner Kupp said.
That will be doubly important against Central Arkansas, the Southland Conference runner-up and fresh from a confidence-building, 31-24 win against Illinois State.
The 14th-ranked Bears like to run the ball, but can surprise teams with the pass.
“Their overall athleticism and playmaking ability really stood out,” Baldwin said after watching game film. “There is an explosiveness to their football team that will make it tough on us. That’s why they’ve won 10 games this year.”
And while he appreciates the home-field advantage, Baldwin said once the game begins, “It’s about how you play and the team you’re up against.”
EWU and Central Arkansas have never met, but the Eagles have faced other Southland Conference teams in the postseason. In 2012, Sam Houston State won 45-42 in a semifinal game at Roos Field. Three years earlier, in Baldwin’s first postseason game as head coach, they lost 44-33 at Stephen F. Austin…. Central Arkansas gives up only 72.8 yards a game on the ground and 320 overall. The Bears also like to control the clock, ranking 10th in the nation in time of possession at 33 minutes, 6 seconds. … Eastern finished the regular season at first in passing offense (406.8 yards a game) and third in scoring (44.2 points).
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