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Eastern Washington notebook: Defense, offensive line bounce back with strong showing against North Dakota

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 2, 2019, 11:35 a.m.

Eastern Washington defender Mitchell Johnson  hits the throwing arm of North Dakota’s Nate Ketteringham and tips the ball to a teammate for a turnover Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Roos Field in Cheney. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington defender Mitchell Johnson hits the throwing arm of North Dakota’s Nate Ketteringham and tips the ball to a teammate for a turnover Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Roos Field in Cheney. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The 76-mile return bus ride from Moscow to Cheney following Idaho’s recent 35-27 upset of Eastern Washington was quiet and dejecting.

One of the worst losses in recent history to the typically downtrodden Vandals came on the heels of a heartbreaking defeat, a 49-45 loss at Jacksonville State, a game in which the Eagles blew a 21-point lead.

Its defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed.

Its offense was enigmatic.

The short trip up U.S. 195 felt much longer after the loss, according to players, but it helped provide clarity for a team that was off its worst start in eight years.

“That next week, we harped on a lot of the things we needed to work on,” EWU defensive lineman Dylan Ledbetter said. “We made those adjustments, and it showed.”

The 22nd-ranked Eagles went on to force six turnovers and had six sacks the next week in its 35-20 win over North Dakota on Saturday at Roos Field, opening its Big Sky Conference slate in ideal fashion.

EWU (2-3, 1-0 Big Sky), which ranked in the bottom third in most Football Championship Subdivision defensive categories, looked like the turnover-forcing Eagles defense of 2018, which earned a spot in the national title game.

So what changed?

“We came out and made it a point to attack and be serious about it,” linebacker Jack Sendelbach said.

Ledbetter, who had two fumble recoveries in the win, said the energy was palpable.

“We had three total turnovers going before that game and six in that game alone,” Ledbetter said. “It was all there. It was a lot of fun to play that style of defense.”

The return of their big man helped.

Correction: The print edition story of this noted that EWU beat UND 28-20 on Sunday. The Eagles won 35-20.

After missing the first four games of the season due to a gunshot sustained in a downtown Spokane shooting this summer, nose tackle Keith Moore was shelved until he was cleared to play again.

When the 6-foot-4, 300-pound behemoth returned to the Eagles’ once-undersized defensive front, it helped the gap efforts of Ledbetter and the linebacker group, helping EWU stuff UND for most of the contest and force it into turnovers.

“Moore demands a lot of attention. He’s a big guy and a great football player,” Sendelbach said. “It helps out (Ledbetter) and the other defensive lineman. It made it easier for them (and the linebackers).”

Sendelbach, EWU’s second-leading tackler, returned for the UND game after sitting out against Idaho due to injury.

EWU’s other standout linebacker, Chris Ojoh, is still out after injuring his ankle at Jacksonville State.

Another solid defender will likely return this week EWU travels to Sacramento State (2-2). For the first time in four weeks, defensive end/buck linebacker Jusstis Warren was in pads after recovering from an injury. The grad transfer from the University of Washington is expected to boost the Eagles’ pass rush.

Offensive line bounces back

EWU’s experienced offensive line had some struggles to open the season, yielding 13 sacks in four games, but it bounced back convincingly against UND

UND, which ranked third in the country in sacks and was also among the leaders in tackles for a loss, totaled one sack against EWU.

The hole-creating line also helped the Eagles run all over the touted UND defensive line, racking up 286 rushing yards in winter-like conditions.

EWU passed the ball 15 times in the win, its fewest pass attempts in a game since 1990.

Reunion in Sacramento

The resurgent Sacramento State football program is led by first-year head coach Troy Taylor, the former short-time EWU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Taylor was EWU’s co-offensive coordinator in 2016 alongside then-head coach Beau Baldwin, helping the Eagles lead the country in passing yards and advance to the FCS semifinals.

He spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons as the offensive coordinator at Utah before becoming the Hornets’ coach in December.

Taylor hired former EWU veteran cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Cherokee Valeria earlier this year.

Valeria is now the secondary coach of a Hornets defense that ranks 14th in points allowed (18 points per game, with a shutout over Northern Colorado (50-0) and narrow losses to FBS members Arizona State (19-7) and Fresno State (34-20, a game that was tied 20-20 in the fourth quarter).

Safeties lead EWU’s defense

Statistically, EWU safeties Dehonta Hayes and Calin Criner are doing the most damage.

Hayes has a team-high 48 tackles and is tied with Criner for the interceptions lead (two).

Criner is third on the team in tackles (26).

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