Football coaches have been saying it for as long as the game has been played.
Statistics are for losers.
But they ignore them at them at their own peril. There are lessons behind those numbers – even for Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best, whose team is 3-0 in the Big Sky Conference despite some mediocre numbers on the stat sheet.
“That just means we’re doing a lot of other things well,” Best said before practice Tuesday at Roos Field.
The 10th-ranked Eagles do one thing especially well: throw the ball. They’re 4-2 overall partly because they rank second in the nation in passing offense with 374 yards per game.
Most coaches, Best included, prize three stats above all: performance on third downs (on both sides of the ball), offense and defense in the red zone, and turnover margin.
Win most of those and you should win the game – unless you’re Eastern.
Last week at UC Davis, the Eagles lost the turnover battle by two, and the other categories were a dead heat. EWU was 8 for 16 on third down while Davis was 9 for 20. In the red zone, the Eagles were 4 for 4 and the Aggies were 6 for 7.
Two weeks earlier, at Montana, Eastern was minus-1 in turnovers, 7 for 17 on third down and 5 for 7 in the red zone. The Griz were 10 for 21 and 4 for 4, respectively.
“The one that’s giving us the black eye is the turnovers,” said Best, whose club is minus-9 for the season and minus-2 in conference games. “We have some work to do – we’ve got to get to zero before we can get to the plus.”
Eastern did even worse in fans’ most popular metric, time of possession, but the Eagles have long ago tossed that one in the dumpster.
Winning a few more third-down battles might keep the defense fresher, said defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding, whose unit faced 104 plays last weekend.
Actually, Eastern hasn’t done anything especially well on the stat line this season. In conference games only, it ranks 12th out of 13 teams in total defense, sixth in third-down offense, eighth in third-down defense, 11th in turnover margin, seventh in red-zone offense and sixth in red zone defense.
The Eagles aren’t getting any breaks from the officials, either: Eastern’s opponents are getting flagged for only 39 yards in penalties per game, the lowest number in the league.
Yet there it is: a 3-0 record in the conference. It’s the product of making the big plays when they matter most: two touchdowns in 21 seconds at Montana; the gut-check touchdown drive before halftime against Sacramento State and three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter at UC Davis.
Yes, the Eagles are a clutch group – they’ve won 38 of their last 43 Big Sky games – and the other guys usually aren’t.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence out there,” said EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud , who has no idea what his stats are.
Spoken like a winner.
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