On the cusp of October, Football Championship Subdivision power Eastern Washington is winless against NCAA Division I opposition.
These are rare times for the Eagles, the 2018 national runner-up ranked No. 4 in the preseason media poll before their rockiest start in eight years.
As frustrating as the last three weeks have been for EWU, it hasn’t played a game that counts in the Big Sky Conference standings.
That changes Saturday when the No. 21 Eagles (1-3) host North Dakota (2-1) at Roos Field, hoping to flip the switch at a venue that’s housed only two conference losses since 2012.
This is a much more pivotal game for EWU than UND, ranked No. 25 in the coaches poll. The FCS independent is playing a Big Sky-heavy schedule in search of a résumé-boosting win.
In a conference littered with Top 25 programs – and potentially one or two more in the coming weeks – a loss may already put the Eagles’ postseason hopes in question.
North Dakota, which left the Big Sky in 2017 and joins the Missouri Valley Conference next fall, knows the stakes for EWU.
It’s why the Fighting Hawks, who have never beaten EWU in a four-game history, expect to lock up with a good, motivated team in Cheney.
“It really doesn’t matter to me (EWU) lost (back-to-back weeks),” said defensive back Hayden Blubaugh of UND, which is coming off a bye week. “They’re going to want to come back to their home crib. They’re going to want to beat us to show last week was just a fluke.”
EWU was upset at Idaho 35-27 last week in Moscow, the Eagles’ first loss to the Vandals since 1999. The Eagles dropped a 49-45 heartbreaker at Ohio Valley Conference power Jacksonville State a week earlier.
EWU’s potent offense (493 yards and 36 points per game) has scored in bunches but has also had plenty of momentum-killing lulls. Its defense (yielding 40.5 points a game), which ranks in the bottom third of the FCS in most statistical categories, has struggled all season.
Eagles star quarterback Eric Barriere, who ranks second in the country in passing yards (1,392) and passing touchdowns (13), will face a UND defensive line that ranks first in pass defense (117 passing yards per game) and third in sacks (12).
UND defensive end Jaxson Turner has the fourth-most sacks in the country (4.5)
EWU is ranked near the bottom of the FCS in sacks and tackles for loss allowed.
Senior EWU receiver Jayson Williams expects the Eagles’ offense to bounce back and maintain its flashes of brilliance for four quarters.
“(UND) hasn’t seen a receiving core like us,” Williams said in reference to North Dakota’s secondary. “They played North Dakota State (UND lost 38-7 on Sept. 7), and that’s a top dog right now. But NDSU isn’t Eastern Washington. We got the receivers, the quarterback and offensive line. If we are clicking, nobody is going to stop us.
“Once we’re going fast, once we do our offense, the EWU offense, it cannot be stopped.”
North Dakota can also move the ball efficiently but isn’t as explosive, averaging 314 yards and 27 points a game.
Traditionally a run-heavy team, UND has morphed into a spread offense that quickly gets the ball in space to a group of big, experienced receivers who move the chains.
UND’s biggest passing connection this season is 35 yards, a strike to leading receiver Noah Wanzek (24 catches, 241 yards), one of a few 6-foot-4 targets.
“They’re a tough team,” EWU linebacker Andrew Katzenberger said. “They’ll spread the ball out, they’re pretty balanced.”
UND welcomes back two-year starting quarterback Nate Ketteringham, who hasn’t seen action since getting injured in a Week 1 blowout of Drake. He is expected to start on Saturday, according to reports.
The Fighting Hawks went to Austin Zimmerman – a former EWU quarterback who redshirted in 2015 – the past two weeks before he was injured at then-24th-ranked Sam Houston State, forcing UND to use true freshman Tommy Schuster.
Schuster helped UND upset Sam Houston State 27-23 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the program’s second win over the traditional FCS power Bearkats in as many years.
“We expect Eastern to be ready for us. They have a lot of good players,” UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. “They were a little bit nicked-up last week and we’ll see where their health is this week. Our focus is our preparation, but we expect a really tough team when we get out to Cheney.”
Will dinged-up EWU be healthier?
EWU’s two primary linebackers, Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach, could miss the second straight game due to injury.
Neither participated at practice earlier this week. Sendelbach was wearing an arm sling and Ojoh (foot), who is no longer on crutches, did light conditioning drills.
Buck outside linebacker Jusstis Warren, a graduate transfer from Washington, where he appeared in 31 games, was also still sidelined at practice with unspecified injury. He hasn’t been healthy since Week 1.
EWU starting cornerback Darreon Moore, who missed the Idaho game with an injury, appeared healthy and may return on Saturday.
Perhaps the most anticipated return is defensive tackle Keith Moore, who has yet to play a game this season after sustaining a gunshot in downtown Spokane this summer.
Moore (6-4, 300 pounds), a returning starter, was placed on the Eagles’ depth chart this week and was participating in live drills at practice.
“I think this week we’re going to get a couple guys back and I think it will help us for sure,” Katzenberger said.
Nasty weather expected
The local forecast for Saturday’s game in Cheney is calling for rain and temperatures hovering in the high 30s and low 40s with heavy winds.
Yes, it’s a conference game
Due to scheduling difficulties in the 13-team Big Sky Conference’s unbalanced schedule, with UND leaving the league in 2017 and the addition of Idaho in 2018, this game will count in the conference standings.
UND regularly plays Big Sky Conference teams but isn’t included in the conference standings and can’t earn an automatic berth to the FCS playoffs.
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