Highly ranked at the start of the season, the Weber State Wildcats dropped out of the Top 25 this week after losing their fourth game of the season. But that record is a little deceptive, given that three of those losses came to FCS teams that are a combined 17-3, and the other loss came to Utah of the Pac-12.
With that in mind, here are three aspects to look for when No. 2 Eastern Washington (7-0, 4-0 Big Sky) hosts the Wildcats (2-4, 1-2), whose playoff hopes likely hinge on pulling off the upset Saturday at Roos Field:
1. Who wins the turnover battle? Weber State on the season is minus-6 in turnovers, a particularly costly number considering their past two losses were by a total of 10 points. Eastern has been among the best at forcing turnovers (with 13) and that has netted the Eagles a plus-7 margin over their opponents. The Wildcats haven’t had consistent quarterback play, as three players have combined to throw six interceptions and seven touchdowns while completing 58% of their passes, the 10th-best rate in the Big Sky. Led by Eric Barriere, the Eagles have the best completion percentage (69.1) in the conference. Also, Eastern is 63-0 since 2010 when it has won the turnover battle, including a 6-0 record this season. Against Montana, the Eagles and Grizzlies each committed two turnovers.
2. How will the Wildcats try to stop Barriere? When Montana visited Roos Field, its strategy was to blitz Barriere more often than not, and in spurts that worked: Montana sacked Barriere a season-high five times. But the Wildcats have eight fewer sacks this season than the Grizzlies (23 to 15) and instead challenge offenses to find holes in their secondary. Teams haven’t had much success: Weber State has allowed 151.5 passing yards per game, the third fewest in the Football Championship Subdivision. Linebacker Conner Mortensen, safety Preston Smith and cornerback Eddie Heckard were all named to the Big Sky first-team defense last year and are starting again for the Wildcats this season. It’s an experienced defense that, statistically, has been better this season than the Grizzlies, who did as good a job as any against Barriere. “If we’re able to minimize (big plays) and capitalize on turnovers, and capitalize on big plays on defense,” Weber State lineman Jared Schiess said, “we’re going to be right there.”
3. How will Eastern handle Rashid Shaheed? Weber State’s senior returner and receiver has six kickoff return touchdowns in his career, tied for the most in the FCS. He took one back against Utah in the Wildcats’ season opener and is second in the conference in kickoff return average (behind Montana’s Malik Flowers, who scored against Eastern earlier this year). Shaheed also has returned nine punts this year for an average gain of 11.1 yards. On top of that, he is the Wildcats’ second-leading receiver with 17 receptions for 262 yards and a touchdown. When these teams met in 2018, Shaheed scored the game’s only touchdown to help the Wildcats win 14-6. This season, no other Big Sky team has ceded more kickoff yards than the Eagles, partially because they have kicked off more than any other member. But on the basis of averages, Eastern still ranks 11th in kickoff distance and net yardage on kickoffs. If this ends up being a close game – as the Montana game was – a big kickoff return (or another big special teams play) could prove crucial.
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