The fifth-ranked Eastern Washington football team closes out its regular season with a game at Portland State, which hasn’t defeated the Eagles at home since 2007.
High-scoring games have come to be the norm in the series, as each team has scored at least 23 points in each of the previous nine matchups. This year doesn’t project to be any different, with two of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference facing defenses that rank in the middle of most defensive statistical categories this season.
Here are three aspects of this Saturday’s game between Eastern Washington (8-2, 5-2) and Portland State (5-5, 4-3) to keep eyes on:
1. How effectively will the Eagles run the football? Tamarick Pierce played his most significant role so far this season against UC Davis, rushing for 89 yards and a score on 17 carries. Fellow senior Dennis Merritt saw his role diminished some: He ran 13 times that game for 41 yards, and in the past four games his average number of carries is 12, compared to 19 the four games before that. Still, Eastern has cycled in multiple running backs all season. If the Eagles can move the ball against the fifth-ranked rushing defense in the Big Sky, that would surely open up more throwing lanes for Eric Barriere and his various receivers.
2. Can Davis Alexander keep pace with Barriere? Multiple coaches across the Big Sky have noted that while Barriere is clearly the best quarterback in the conference, the senior Alexander is their favorite as the No. 2. Alexander doesn’t rate as the second-most efficient quarterback – he’s actually sixth – but he has attempted more passes and thrown for more yards and connected on more touchdown throws than every Big Sky quarterback except Barriere. Alexander wasn’t great last week against Sacramento State: He threw three interceptions and completed 23 of 38 attempts for two touchdowns. But the week before, in a victory over Weber State, he was much better, completing 29 of 42 passes for a touchdown and no interceptions. Alexander playing turnover-free football is probably a requirement for the Vikings to pull off the upset.
3. Will Eastern’s special teams contain the big plays and produce one of their own? While Eastern’s offensive prowess has led the Eagles to kick off more frequently than any other Big Sky team, the results haven’t been good. Eastern’s net kickoff yardage is 36.2, worst in the conference. Last week, UC Davis became the second team to return a kickoff for a touchdown against the Eagles. It ended up not factoring in an 18-point Eagles’ victory, but it is certainly a weakness for a team with aspirations of a deep playoff run. Pair that with Eastern’s inconsistency kicking field goals – it has made just 9 of 16 such attempts this season – and special teams play remains something other teams can exploit. PSU hasn’t been much better than Eastern at returning or covering kickoffs, so this could be an opportunity for EWU’s return game to build some confidence heading into the playoffs.
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