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First look: Weber State at Eastern Washington

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 30, 2017, 8:22 p.m.

Weber State coach Jay Hill shakes players’ hands during the Wildcats’ 41-27 win over Montana on Saturday. (Matt Herp / Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner)
Weber State coach Jay Hill shakes players’ hands during the Wildcats’ 41-27 win over Montana on Saturday. (Matt Herp / Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner)

Eastern Washington football fans never tire of seeing Montana lose, but Saturday’s score may have given them pause: Weber State 41, Montana 27, and it wasn’t even that close.

By the middle of the second quarter, the Griz were down 31-0 and went on to commit five turnovers.

“I thought we played very well in all phases of the game,” said Jay Hill, coach of the Wildcats.

Make that the 19th-ranked Wildcats, who will be in Cheney on Saturday for a crucial Big Sky Conference game against the 11th-ranked Eagles.

Both teams are 4-1 in the conference and tied for second with Southern Utah. Northern Arizona is alone in first at 5-0, which means that Saturday’s game at Roos Field is a title-elimination match.

Also, a loss by Eastern (5-3 overall) would leave the Eagles’ backs against the wall in terms of qualifying for an at-large berth in the FCS playoffs.

While the Eagles had a bye week to regroup following a 46-28 loss at Southern Utah, the Wildcats (6-2) have won two straight after a 32-16 loss to the Thunderbirds.

Picked to finish fifth, the Wildcats have been among the league’s most consistent teams, thanks mostly to an outstanding defense.

In conference games only, Weber State leads the league in scoring defense (giving up 16.4 points a game) and is second in total defense (357.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (129.4).

In the stats that really matter, Weber is even better. The Wildcats are a plus-9 in turnover margin (EWU is minus-4) and holds opponents to 35 percent on third-down conversions.

But the real eye-opener is their stinginess in the red zone, where their five Big Sky opponents have crossed the 20-yard line on 15 occasions and come away with just four touchdowns and four field goals.

That comes out to 53.3 percent, which is 11 percentage points better than No. 2 Cal Poly and far ahead of Eastern’s 76.9 percent.

Nationally, the Wildcats’ red-zone defense (for all games) is second behind defending national champion James Madison.

Offensively, Weber State is doing just enough to get the job done. In conference games, the Wildcats are last in the league in total offense, with 337 yards (Eastern has 520.4). However, they’ve cashed in on a league-leading 90 percent of their chances in the red zone.

Quarterback Stefan Cantwell (65-for-108 for 903 yards, seven touchdowns and one pick) is a respectable fifth in the league in pass efficiency, only a fraction of a point behind Eastern’s Gage Gubrud.

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