Rarely does Eastern Washington not have a number attached its football-rich name.
Now is one of those times.
When the Eagles (2-4, 1-1 Big Sky Conference) host Northern Colorado (1-5, 1-1) on Saturday at Roos Field, they’ll be playing their first game as an unranked Football Championship Subdivision team since 2011.
One more loss would cement the Eagles’ absence from the 2019 FCS playoffs, a disappointing scenario for a team once widely expected to make another push for the FCS national title game for a second straight year.
EWU defensive end Dylan Ledbetter isn’t thinking about that.
“We’re not worried what people think about us, what other people are saying about us. We know who we are and what we are down to our core,” Ledbetter said. “We’re going to take care of what we can, go 1-0 for the next six games and let (the FCS playoff committee) decide.”
The second half of the Eagles’ schedule starts on Saturday, a homecoming game against a Northern Colorado team that’s never won a game in Cheney. UNC hasn’t beaten EWU since 1981.
EWU is aiming for a school-record 12th consecutive win at Roos Field.
The high-octane Eagles (474 total yards a game) will look to carve up a Northern Colorado defense that’s the third worst in the FCS, yielding 501 yards a game, including 315 through the air.
EWU quarterback Eric Barriere has 1,966 total yards and 20 touchdowns. Running back Antoine Custer leads the Big Sky in rushing (503 yards).
The Eagles’ offense has shined and sputtered the last three weeks, going 13 of 47 on third down and 4 of 12 on fourth down, but ninth-year Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins Jr. isn’t giving EWU’s losing record much credence.
“I don’t buy it,” Collins said on his weekly coaches show this week, pointing to EWU’s talent.
“Barriere is a great player,” Collins added. “They don’t run him a lot as a running quarterback, but you have to keep him corralled because he can take off on a big run. They have an opportunistic defense that flies to the ball and forces turnovers.”
EWU has forced 12 turnovers this season – including seven interceptions – but has had its struggles, giving up an average of 38 points and 434 yards a game.
Northern Colorado has a capable offense, led by sixth-year quarterback Jacob Knipp and running back Milo Hall (464 yards) – the conference’s second-leading rusher.
Knipp last faced EWU as a redshirt freshman in 2015, connecting on 20 of 29 passes for 257 yards an no interceptions in a 43-41 loss to the Eagles in Greeley, Colorado. He suffered early season-ending injuries the next three seasons.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound signal-caller has been relatively healthy all season, completing 104 of 178 passes for 1,213 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s been sacked 18 times.
A Knipp-less Northern Colorado team was handled 48-13 by EWU in Greeley last season and 49-31 at Roos Field in 2016.
“They have a quarterback who can throw it from hash to sideline, a running back who can take it to the end zone at any point in the game,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “So they’re dynamic in a lot of ways.”
A week after the Eagles were upset 35-27 at Idaho, Northern Colorado clipped the Vandals 27-24. Both teams lost at Sacramento State, the Hornets buzzing past the Bears in a 50-0 rout before handling EWU 48-27 last week.
Northern Colorado has one road win since the end of the 2016 season.
“The mindset is to win, get back on our high horse and get back in the mood of winning,” Custer said. “(Northern Colorado) is a team that’s going to fight and not just give us a win. They’re going to play hard, and we’re going to have to do what it takes.”
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