Northern Colorado became a member of the Big Sky in 2006, a decade after it won a pair of Division II national championships.
The Bears have yet to come close to duplicating that success as an FCS team.
Just three times have the Bears won at least three Big Sky games in a season, and they’ve never won more than four. They haven’t made the playoffs, and with a 2-5 Big Sky record and a 3-7 mark overall, the Bears won’t do so this year, either.
Eastern Washington, on the other hand, has been among the conference’s most successful teams since 2006 – which was, coincidentally, the last year the Eagles finished with a sub.-500 record – and the Eagles have generally dominated the Bears. Not once since UNC joined the Big Sky have the Bears defeated the Eagles, and not once have the Bears finished above the Eagles in the standings.
But this could be the year.
The teams meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney. A victory for the Bears – who have defeated every other current Big Sky team at least once since 2006 – would end both of those streaks.
That’s certainly not a scenario desired by the Eagles, who are 2-8 overall and 1-6 Big Sky games.
“We’ve got to find a way to get a win on the Red,” EWU senior defensive end Mitchell Johnson said, “and end this season on a good note.”
Eastern hasn’t won on its home field – the Red – since a season-opening victory over Tennessee State on Sept. 3. Its only other victory, 17-10 over Cal Poly, came on the road on Oct. 22.
The Eagles have been competitive in their other three home games, losing to Montana State and Portland State by three points each and playing with Sacramento State for one half before losing 52-28.
But their last two showings, on the road at Idaho and at Montana, haven’t been so competitive, losing by a combined score of 111-23 to teams playing for spots in the playoffs.
“We have the players we need to win, and we haven’t done enough of that this year,” Johnson said.
“But I trust this coaching staff, and I trust my teammates, that when we are clicking on all cylinders we are a really good football team.”
Though not as potent as in recent years, the Eagles’ passing game has moved the ball well at times and has shown a propensity for big plays.
Senior Gunner Talkington has started every game this year and ranks fourth in the conference in passing yards (2,447) and third in touchdowns (22). He has also completed two of the four longest passes in the Big Sky, an 87-yarder to Nolan Ulm and an 80-yarder to Freddie Roberson.
But the Eagles also rank eighth in third-down conversion rate (39.1%), ninth in fourth-down conversions (40.7%), and only the Idaho State Bengals have punted more often than the Eagles have (54 times).
Although Eastern’s defense has produced 11 interceptions and 17 sacks, it has been on the field more than any other defense in the conference and has given up the second-most yards .
As much as he has searched and scratched to get a win, EWU head coach Aaron Best said, things just haven’t gone right .
“(We have to) make the game simple this Saturday,” Best said. “Play as fast as we can, as well as we can, as together as we can, and like we do every week, strive to be 1-0.”
Facing them is a team coming off a 21-20 victory over Northern Arizona, its first since a 35-14 victory over Idaho State on Sept. 24.
During a five-game losing streak , the Bears’ closest result was a 35-21 loss to Portland State.
Disappointing as the Bears’ season has been, a victory would still give them a 3-5 conference record, seemingly something to build on heading into next season.
“It’s a team that’s hungry,” Best said of UNC. “You watch the sidelines, they root for each other and they play consistently in all three phases.”
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