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Disappointing first half of season has EWU Eagles hoping to win out

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 8, 2019, 7:53 a.m.

Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best knows he needs to solve some glaring problems fast if the Eagles hope to return to the postseason. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best knows he needs to solve some glaring problems fast if the Eagles hope to return to the postseason. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

SACRAMENTO, California – More than five minutes had burned off the halftime clock Saturday at Hornet Stadium, and a group of EWU coordinators and assistants were still half-circled around head coach Aaron Best outside the locker room.

A gesticulating Best appeared frustrated as he gave his cohorts a pep talk, hoping to inspire a few adjustments for an EWU team that was getting pushed around by Sacramento State, which had taken a 27-14 lead into intermission.

But the top-to-bottom inconsistencies that have marred the Eagles’ 2019 campaign didn’t stop.

Best was exasperated following the Eagles’ 48-27 loss to the resurgent Hornets (3-2, 1-0), the Eagles’ first road loss to the historically downtrodden Big Sky Conference program.

“We have to get better in a lot of areas, from me all the way down,” Best said. “We’re a 2-4 team.”

EWU, which returned a wealth of talent and experience from last season’s national runner-up squad, was dropped Monday from both major Football Champions Subdivision Top 25 polls, the Eagles’ first absence since 2015.

At the halfway point of its season, EWU (2-4, 1-1) has one win against a Division I team and will likely need to win its next six games for a return to the FCS playoffs.

Big Sky members Weber State (ranked fourth), Montana State (sixth), Montana (eighth) and UC Davis (24th) are ranked, and Sacramento State is one slot outside the Top 25 media poll.

Another hiccup, and the Eagles, the Big Sky preseason favorite who were ranked as high as No.4, will likely miss the playoffs for the second time in the three-year Best era.

But there’s still hope, especially if the conference’s top squads proceed to beat each other up.

The second half of EWU’s schedule resumes Saturday when the Eagles host Northern Colorado (1-5, 1-1). Next week, the Eagles have a bye week before prepping for a big, rivalry road game on Oct. 26 at Montana (5-1, 2-0).

Northern Arizona (3-3, 1-1), Idaho State (2-3, 1-1), Cal Poly (2-3, 1-1) and Portland State (3-3, 1-1) make up the rest of the schedule. EWU won’t face Weber State, Montana State or UC Davis in would-be resume-boosting games this season because of the league’s unbalanced schedule.

“Mentally it just hurts to start off a year this slow,” EWU cornerback Tre Weed said. “But it’s how you finish, you can start off the season without winning a game.”

Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Chris Schlichting was as candid as he was upset following EWU’s most recent loss.

“We took a step forward (beating North Dakota) then a huge step back,” Schlichting said. “The inconsistency has been a big problem we need to address.”

“It’s not like it was five years ago where half the teams in the league win three games a year,” Schlichting added. “Every game we come out we’re going to get their best, because we are their Super Bowl. Teams want to beat Eastern Washington. We’re the best (program in the league) the last 10 years, and nobody has touched us. People want to be us and want to beat us.”

On Saturday, it was Sacramento State, led by former EWU offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, that outplayed the Eagles.

The Hornets, picked 12th in the 13-team Big Sky preseason poll after going winless in league play last season, piled up 471 yards, seven sacks and two defensive touchdowns.

Led by first-year offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker, EWU’s offense continued its hit-and-miss trend. The Eagles outgained the Hornets with 497 total yards, but seven quick drives ended in punts, two turnovers led to Sacramento State defensive touchdowns and the Eagles were 1 of 6 on fourth-down conversions and 6 of 19 on third down.

A fast, athletic Sacramento State defense consistently blitzed standout quarterback Eric Barriere, as well as backup Gunner Talkington, and EWU, which had a pair of fast, efficient late touchdown drives to cut the Hornets’ lead to 34-27, couldn’t stay in sync.

Barriere exited the game after the Eagles’ first drive of the second quarter following a 10-yard fourth-down run where he was knocked out of bounds. He immediately walked toward a trainer and returned at the 5:07 mark of the third quarter.

EWU did not make Barriere available to reporters after the game, but Best said he was a “flat-out warrior” for returning.

The Eagles’ running game was mostly held in check, totaling 161 yards on 36 carries, most of which came on Barriere’s 92-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

“We have to be more dynamic on offense,” Best said. “Twenty-seven points isn’t going to win many ballgames consistently in the Big Sky.”

First-year EWU defensive coordinator Eti Ena’s defense struggled in the first half, but kept the Hornets off the scoreboard in four of the their five second-half drives. Sacramento State did most of its damage, on short, quick passes, toting 315 passing yards against EWU, which ranked 100th in passing yards allowed (271 yards per game).

A Weed interception on the Hornets’ 36-yard line late in the third quarter gave EWU’s offense a good opportunity, but a personal foul penalty on offensive tackle Tristen Taylor ultimately killed the drive.

“This loss is going to sting for sure. It’s definitely tough when (Hornets quarterback Kevin Thomson) has a quick release and plays are happening super fast,” Weed said of Sacramento State. “They’re a great offense and a great team and we’ll need to learn from this.”

While EWU’s experienced offense has been relatively healthy this season, its defense has been without some of its key figures, including standout linebacker Chris Ojoh, who has missed the last three games with a foot injury.

Hayes shines, gets ejected: For the second straight week, EWU’s leading tackler senior safety Dehonta Hayes totaled a game-high 17 tackles.

He may have had more Saturday, but was ejected late in the second half for targeting, his second targeting ejection in two seasons.

Hayes will have to sit out the first half against Northern Colorado this week because of the penalty.

Eagles not converting: In its three games against Big Sky members Idaho, North Dakota and Sacramento State, EWU’s offense is a combined 13 of 47 on third-down conversions and is 4 for 12 on fourth down.

EWU has been great in its first six games in the red zone, though, scoring on 23 of its 27 trips.

Sacks piling up for EWU QBs: The Eagles, who returned the bulk of their 2018 offensive line, have given up 22 sacks in six games this season.

In EWU’s 15-game season of 2018, it allowed 24 sacks.

Another title game hangover? Not since 2011 has EWU started 2-4, and that team also came off a championship game appearance and returned its star starting quarterback, Bo Levi Mitchell, who went on to win the Walter Payton Award despite a disappointing 6-5 season.

The 2011 team lost its first four games by an average of six points, falling at Washington (30-27), at South Dakota (30-17), at 12th-ranked Montana (17-14) and against fourth-ranked Montana State (31-26) in the home opener.

The Grizzlies and Bobcats went on to share the Big Sky title in 2011 and South Dakota finished third in the now-defunct Great West Conference.

This year’s squad also fell at Washington (47-14) before falling on the road at 16th-ranked Jacksonville State (49-45) and on the road to unranked Big Sky members Idaho (35-27) and Sacramento State (48-27) for an average loss of 16.5 points.

The Eagles haven’t finished with a losing season since 2006 when they went 3-8.

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