Coming off a victory over rival Montana, the Eastern Washington Eagles – who flipped rankings with Montana in the Stats FCS poll this week – head to Greeley, Colorado, this week hoping to extend their unbeaten start.
The 34-28 victory over now-No. 6 Montana was surely exciting and important: The No. 4 Eagles are 5-0 for the first time since 1985 and tied for first place in the Big Sky at 2-0 with UC Davis and Montana State.
EWU senior linebacker Ty Graham said he and other team leaders have been reminding teammates this week that they need to keep their energy up and to be self-disciplined in their preparation.
“We’re never going to underestimate any team,” Graham said. “Everyone’s going to play their best ball against us right now. That’s what we’re expecting.”
Their next opponent, Northern Colorado, off to a 1-1 start in the Big Sky and 2-3 overall, is a program that Eastern Washington has dominated.
The Eagles have won their past 12 games against the Bears – eight by double digits – since Northern Colorado joined the Big Sky in 2006.
UNC is one of four programs Eastern is unbeaten against over that span, including Idaho State (12-0), UC Davis (8-0) and Cal Poly (8-0).
The Bears appear to still be finding their footing under first-year coach Ed McCaffrey, whose team lost at Montana State 40-7 on Saturday, one game after beating Northern Arizona 17-10 in Greeley.
Montana State gouged the Bears’ defense equally on the ground and through the air, with 276 yards passing and 276 yards rushing.
But the week before, the Bears held Lumberjacks quarterback RJ Martinez to 208 yards on 21 of 37 attempts. Martinez is the reigning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week after a bounce-back performance on Saturday.
“I expect them to give us their best shot,” Eagles sophomore running back Micah Smith said of the Bears Tuesday. “They’re pretty big in their defensive line, and their linebackers are pretty big, too. I expect a pretty solid game.”
The Eagles will be shorthanded on offense.
After suffering a lower-leg injury against Montana, senior Talolo Limu-Jones, their leading receiver, is not listed on the two-deep depth chart this week. Neither is redshirt freshman right tackle Matthew Hewa Baddege, who started the first four games but missed the game against Montana.
It remains to be seen whether sophomore receiver Freddie Roberson and senior receiver Johnny Edwards IV are able to return after missing the game against Montana.
Limu-Jones, Roberson and Edwards have accounted for 979 of the team’s 2,220 receiving yards this season.
Redshirt sophomore Seth Harrison is listed on the depth chart as the team’s place-kicker, but he also was last week and ended up missing the game. Redshirt freshman Jackson Cleaver made all four of his kicks – two extra points and two field goals – earning him Big Sky Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
Northern Colorado’s offense features quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, who started his college career at Michigan but transferred after his father was named the Bears’ head coach.
The graduate transfer is averaging 149 yards per game and has completed 59% of his throws, ranking ninth and 10th, respectively, among Big Sky quarterbacks.
McCaffrey did not play in the Bears’ third game of the season, a 17-10 loss to Lamar.
McCaffrey’s top receiver is Kassidy Woods, the former Washington State player who has 24 receptions for 287 yards .
“(They play) very similar schemes that we’re used to that teams ran against us in previous games,” Eagles sophomore safety Ely Doyle said of the Bears. “We’ll be very dialed in.”
Eagles coach Aaron Best said that he thought Northern Colorado did not play well at Montana State, and that the Bobcats’ ability to get their run game going early contributed to the Bears’ struggles. Best also pointed out that anything is possible with a first-year college football coach such as McCaffrey.
“Capable quarterback. Capable run game. Capable defense,” Best said, noting also that the Bears have the conference’s third-best defensive third-down conversion rate at 30.3%. “There are some statistical things well below their record that don’t indicate some of the successes that they’ve had up until this point.”
After the trip to Greeley, the Eagles will play their next three games at home – two games, followed by a bye, and then another game at Roos Field – before wrapping up their regular-season schedule at UC Davis and Portland State.
“Coach Best keeps praising us (for) moving forward, moving on to the next opponent and not looking back,” sophomore cornerback Demetrius Crosby Jr. said Tuesday. “Last week is behind us. We’re worried about Northern Colorado.”
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