Jayson Williams has experienced the euphoria of two deep Football Championship Subdivision playoff runs and the pain of an underachieving, postseason-less season.
Eastern Washington’s senior wide receiver has no intention of reliving the latter.
But the 21st-ranked Eagles, who dropped 10 spots in the most recent STATS FCS media poll after a 35-27 upset loss at Idaho on Saturday, are trending downward after a surprising 1-3 start.
“We have to take steps forward,” said Williams, who has hauled in three touchdown passes during the previous two games. “If not, we’re going to be at home during the playoffs, and I’m not trying to do that.”
EWU hopes to right the ship Saturday when it welcomes North Dakota (2-1) to Roos Field to open Big Sky Conference play. UND is ranked No. 25 in the FCS coaches poll.
If the Eagles don’t respond, a 1-4 mark would bounce them out of the Top 25 poll for the first time in four years, putting their backs against the wall before October.
In a conference that includes fourth-ranked UC Davis, fifth-ranked Weber State, seventh-ranked Montana State, 18th-ranked Montana and a handful of other programs receiving votes, EWU’s margin of error is slim.
Especially since it doesn’t get to face UC Davis, Weber State or Montana State in potential résumé-boosting games due to the 13-team conference’s unbalanced schedule.
“We got to win out. We can’t take any more losses,” Williams said. “Everyone reads the posts and what people are saying about the standings. People say we don’t have a tough remaining schedule and don’t know if we’ll get back to the top 10 again, but that’s whatever. We got to win the Big Sky first.”
EWU, the 2018 FCS national runner-up, was the prohibitive Big Sky Conference preseason favorite, holding a No. 4 ranking in the STATS FCS media poll heading into Week 1 against defending Pac-12 champion Washington.
The Huskies handled EWU 47-14 in Montlake before the Eagles downed NCAA Division II Lindenwood 59-31. EWU then collapsed 49-45 at fellow FCS power Jacksonville State after leading 28-7, a week before Idaho – a 20-point underdog – jumped out to a 28-0 lead before holding off the Eagles in Moscow, their first loss to the Vandals since 1999.
The explosive Eagles are still moving the chains at an impressive clip, ranking ninth nationally in total offense (493 yards per game) and 19th in scoring (36.6 ypg).
Scoring has often come in bunches, but so have three-and-out lulls accompanied by continued defensive struggles.
Despite having one of the most experience and decorated offensive lines in the country, EWU ranks 110 out of 124 total FCS teams in sacks allowed (13) and 104th in tackles for a loss allowed (7.7 per game).
“We got to have better protection. We have to mix up our protections, we have to run the ball for the pass to be effective,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “Because you can’t be one-dimensional.”
EWU’s defense is yielding 40.5 points a game (113th in scoring defense) and its pass defense – a group littered with freshman cornerbacks – is giving up 289 yards a game (104th in pass defense).
The Eagles’ defense has always battled injuries. Against Idaho, EWU was without its two primary run-stoppers, linebackers Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach, forcing backups Andrew Katzenberger and Trevor Davis into action.
“I think guys are in the right spots where we should be, but we’re just not making those plays,” Katzenberger said. “We’re not finishing the tackle, we’re not wrapping up. We’re not using our technique. It’s the little things.”
EWU, which is still in search of its first win against a Division I team, is off to its worst start since 2011.
“Nobody thought it would take this long to get to this stage,” Best said. “But things happen, and you learn from them.”
Williams said he and his cohorts are ready to correct their mistakes in the important eight-game stretch. When this offense is clicking, Williams said, it’s the best in the country. When it’s not, it’s because of a lack of communication.
“It’s frustrating being a senior and remember being here in (in 2016) (with) Cooper Kupp and how that offense was, to now,” Williams said. “But we just got to stop the mistakes, get good at the little things. Things are going to happen.”
Barriere leads nation in yards
EWU quarterback Eric Barriere was a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate, and his numbers are backing up that distinction.
Barriere leads the nation in passing yards (1,392) and ranks second in passing touchdowns (13), completing 105 of his 170 attempts.
The dual-threat junior also has three rushing touchdowns. He is averaging 8.5 yards a game rushing, substantially less than the 43.8 yards he averaged last season.
Ledbetter adds to block total
EWU senior defensive tackle Dylan Ledbetter has apparently mastered the art of the blocked kick.
Ledbetter blocked both of Idaho’s field-goal attempts last week, boosting his career total to six.
Lewis no longer on roster
Promising redshirt freshman running back Isaiah Lewis is no longer on the team’s roster. The Monroe, Washington, product did not travel with the team the last two away games.
EWU confirmed that he is no longer part of the program.
Due to injuries in EWU’s backfield, Lewis quickly rose on the Eagles’ depth chart and had 12 carries for 63 yards and a touchdown against Lindenwood.
North Dakota gets QB back
North Dakota senior quarterback Nate Ketteringham will start against EWU on Saturday, according to the Grand Forks Herald.
Ketteringham was injured in a 47-7 win over Drake in Week 1. UND was recently down to its third-string QB, who helped his team beat then-24th ranked Sam Houston State 27-23 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
UND, which left the Big Sky in 2017 and joins the Missouri Valley Conference in 2020, is coming off a bye week. The game counts in the Big Sky standings due to the league’s off-balanced scheduling.
EWU has beaten UND in all four previous meetings, including a 21-14 road win in 2017 when Barriere earned his first career start, filling in for a suspended Gage Gubrud.
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