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Sports >  EWU football

Playoffs looming, Aaron Best and his Eastern Washington football team eager for another shot at Idaho

April 8, 2021 Updated Fri., April 9, 2021 at 10:54 p.m.

Eastern Washington head football coach Aaron Best reacts during the first half of the Eagles’ 62-10 Big Sky Conference victory over Cal Poly on March 27 at Roos Field in Cheney.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington head football coach Aaron Best reacts during the first half of the Eagles’ 62-10 Big Sky Conference victory over Cal Poly on March 27 at Roos Field in Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Instead of patrolling the sidelines during the Eastern Washington football team’s season opener, Eagles coach Aaron Best paced in front of his television, at home.

“It was awful in so many ways because you couldn’t be part of the process,” said Best, who was in COVID-19 quarantine during the Eagles’ 28-21 loss to the Idaho Vandals on Feb. 27. “I felt helpless.”

Best returned the following week and the Eagles haven’t lost since. They get a rare in-season rematch on Saturday, this time at Roos Field. With a victory, the ninth-ranked Eagles are all but certain to earn a spot in the 16-team FCS playoff field.

“The ability to do better in Round 2 is exciting for us,” Best said. “Now that we’re 4-1, (we) have a chance to substantiate something we wanted to earn from the start of the season: a seventh game.”

The loss at the Kibbie Dome earlier this season marked the second time in a row that the Vandals have upset the Eagles. It also happened in 2019, when Idaho beat 11th-ranked EWU 35-27.

As much as any of the Eagles’ five losses last season, that defeat at the Kibbie Dome – when the Eagles fell behind 28-0 in the first half – likely cost Eastern a playoff spot, something they’re eager to reclaim this year.

In this spring’s season opener, Idaho was the team mounting the comeback, which was eventually successful: After Eastern built leads of 14-0 and 21-14, the Vandals scored the game’s final two touchdowns to win 28-21.

“There (were) some first-game jitters on both sides,” Best said. “You just don’t know what you’re gonna get in that first game. I think we played solid in parts and spotty in others.”

Since that game, the Vandals have lost two of three and are 2-2 overall, whereas the Eagles have been dominant on offense – averaging 46 points per game – and effective on defense. They rank third in the Big Sky in yards per game allowed (368) and first in third-down conversion defense (35.6), while holding opponents scoreless on six of 19 red-zone trips.

“The overarching way to describe our defense is we’ve played collectively well together,” Best said. “When put in precarious situations, they’ve done a phenomenal job.”

With the playoffs scheduled to start April 24, the Big Sky might send two of its seven participating teams to the field. Third-ranked Weber State (4-0) hosts Idaho State (2-3) in its regular-season finale Saturday. After losing to Eastern last weekend, UC Davis (3-2) is unlikely to get in, unless the Big Sky snags two of the six at-large bids.

Since the spring season began, eight FCS teams have opted out midseason, including Cal Poly, which ended its campaign on March 29. Five Big Sky teams chose not to participate in the conference’s spring season: Sacramento State, Montana, Montana State, Northern Colorado and Portland State.

Montana is scheduled to play Central Washington on Saturday and host Portland State on April 17.

Northern Colorado played a closed scrimmage against CSU-Pueblo last week and has another Saturday against Chadron State.

Montana State and Sacramento State have no contests scheduled.

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