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Eastern Washington University Football

Showdown in Cheney: Fifth-ranked Eastern Washington ready for upstart, No. 4 UC Davis

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier  passes against Stanford in the first half Sept. 15 in  Stanford, Calif. (Jim Gensheimer / AP)

The stakes are as high as they are simple.

Fifth-ranked Eastern Washington (7-2, 5-1) can win at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title and likely cement a high seed in the FCS playoffs if it wins its next two games.

Trip once and it’s goodbye, trophy; hello, at-large berth and mercy of the FCS playoff committee.

A late-season win over a fellow top-five program would sure boost the Eagles’ resume, though.

Fourth-ranked and Big Sky-leading UC Davis (8-1, 6-0) will provide EWU that opportunity at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday at Roos Field.

A UC Davis win would give the Aggies at least a share of Big Sky title, the first in program history, and put them in the driver’s seat for the outright title.

Third-ranked Weber State (7-2, 5-1) and No. 24 Idaho State (6-3, 5-1) are also in Big Sky title contention.

UC Davis, which has never beaten EWU, brings one of the most potent offenses in the country to Cheney, along with some of the FCS level’s most-decorated players.

In wide receiver Keelan Doss (779 yards, seven TDs) and quarterback Jake Maier (2,714 yards, 27 TDs), the Aggies have a pair of Walter Payton Award candidates. Running back Ulonzo Gilliam (767 yards, 12 TDs) is a nominee for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the country’s top freshman.

On defense, the Aggies have a Buck Buchanon Award candidate in blitzing linebacker Mason Moe (15.5 sacks)

Their head coach, Dan Hawkins, is a recognizable figure in all of Division I football. Hawkins was the head coach at Boise State (2001-2005) and Colorado (2006-2010).

He has the upstart Aggies rolling in just his second year. EWU head coach Aaron Best is excited for the challenge, and considers it an early-November playoff game.

EWU wraps up its regular season next Friday at Portland State (4-5).

“They’re very good,” Best said of UC Davis. “They’re very innovative, especially on offense. They pressure you on defense. They bring pressure from anywhere and everywhere, and have dynamic players on both sides of the ball, and special teams.

“Hopefully, some home cooking helps us out, but we’re going to have to play our A game on Senior Day to give ourselves a chance.”

The weather may favor the Eagles against the California squad.

When UC Davis landed in Spokane on Friday night, it was welcomed by snow flurries. Snow isn’t expected in Cheney on Saturday , but the kickoff temperature is expected to be 38 degrees.

Cold and/or sloppy conditions would help a surging EWU defense (15.3 points allowed in Big Sky play) against a pass-first Davis offense.

UC Davis hasn’t faced a stout defense since a 30-10 loss to Stanford in September. EWU hasn’t hooked up with a consistently efficient offense since a 59-24 loss at Washington State in September.

Saturday will be a prove-it game for the two units.

“There’s a lot excitement,” EWU linebacker Ketner Kupp said. “We know these games mean and the what ramifications it has for the year. We’re excited to go in there and give it our all.”

Doss and Maier torched EWUs’ secondary last year, spearheading an offense that racked up 551 total yards in a 41-38 loss loss in Davis, a game where EWU needed a fourth-quarter surge comeback.

If UC Davis scores regularly, it would need its defense, which allows 422 yards a game, to slow down the country’s top-ranked offense.

Sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere (1,296 total yards and 12 TDs in four games) and the balanced Eagles are putting up 532 yards a game. Sam McPherson (7.5 ypc) leads a deep EWU backfield that’s averaging 251 yards a game.

EWU wide receiver Terrence Grady lauded UC Davis’ defense.

“(UC Davis) has a pretty physical secondary,” Grady said. “They’re athletic, they have guys that can move and cover, but they’re definitely beatable. I’m hoping we take more shots over the top with (Barriere’s) arm, and they have a couple guys who are susceptible to getting beat over the top.”

“To be the best, you have to beat the best, and right now we’re looking up at UC Davis,” Best said.