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Things to watch: How Eastern Washington can beat Southern Utah and improve to 4-0

Eastern Washington University head coach Aaron Best watches the game against Central Washington University on Sept. 11 at Roos Field in Cheney.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington looks to take care of business in its Big Sky Conference opener in Cedar City, Utah. Here are three aspects of the game to watch closely:

1. How much pressure will Eastern’s defense generate on the Southern Utah offensive line?

While left tackle Braxton Jones was listed on the Hero Sports Preseason All-America team, aside from the 6-foot-7 redshirt junior the Thunderbirds are young on the offensive line, starting a sophomore and three redshirt freshmen who entered this season with a combined 17 starts.

As a group, though, it has only given up four sacks through three games; the Eagles’ defense has twice as many this season. Look for the Eagles to attack the right side of the Thunderbirds’ line, and to try to find ways to get around Jones, who protects the blind side of quarterback Justin Miller. Miller is not known for his scrambling: In 11 career games, the redshirt sophomore’s longest rush is 5 yards.

2. Will the balanced offense continue against a Big Sky foe?

The Eagles lead the Big Sky in passing offense (414.7 yards per game) and rushing offense (208.7). It’s the sort of balance coach Aaron Best has said he wants in the offense, and the past two full seasons (2020-21 excluded), the Eagles have been much less one-dimensional than they were under Beau Baldwin. In 2017, Best’s first year as head coach, Eastern ranked third among Big Sky teams in passing and ninth in rushing. But in 2018 and 2019, it ranked among the top three in both categories. UNLV, Central Washington and Western Illinois have struggled to contain the Eagles’ offense; Saturday will demonstrate whether Eastern’s first Big Sky opponent will be any more successful.

3. Who executes better on third down?

The statistics through three games on this certainly favor the Eagles. The Thunderbirds’ offense has converted on 14 of 36 third downs this year, while the Eagles’ opponents have converted at an even lower rate, 13 of 44. The Eagles’ offense has converted on 24 of 44 third downs, whereas the Thunderbirds’ opponents have gone 20 of 35. But they’ve played against different levels of competition, so making comparisons is an inexact exercise. Especially if this game is another high-scoring affair, every drive could be crucial, and extending them on third downs will be paramount for both teams.