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Sports >  EWU football

Things to watch: Eastern Washington hopes to end season on a high note against Northern Colorado

Nov. 18, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 18, 2022 at 4:56 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Last week against Montana, Eastern Washington turned to redshirt freshman quarterback Kekoa Visperas in the second half with the game – which ended in a 63-7 Grizzlies’ victory – already out of hand, 42-0.

It was the first significant stretch of play for Visperas, the only quarterback besides senior Gunner Talkington to take a snap for the Eagles this season.

The season wraps up Saturday against Northern Colorado in Cheney, with the Eagles (2-8 overall, 1-6 Big Sky) looking to end a disappointing season with a win. The game kicks off at 1:02 p.m.

“We just haven’t been on the right side of the scoreboard at home this season as much as we have been since 2010,” EWU coach Aaron Best said, referring to the year the Eagles won a national title. “A win can slightly erase some of the things that have been miscues on the Red this season.”

One question heading into the game surrounds the quarterbacks: Will Best turn to Talkington – provided he is healthy – and let the senior try to end his career with a victory? Or will he look to give Visperas a full game, as the younger quarterback looks to build toward potentially being the full-time starter next year?

That is one storyline to watch as the Eagles try to win at home for the first time since their season opener. Here are three others:

Can the Eagles hold the Bears to less than 450 yards of offense? Offensively, the Bears have come on strong lately, putting up total offensive yard totals of 336, 469 and 423 in their most recent three games. The Eagles have held only one opponent – Cal Poly – to fewer than 450 yards, and just two more under 500. But statistically, Northern Colorado’s is the least imposing offense to play at Roos Field this season, and if ever Eastern is going to be able to slow an offense, it’s got to be Saturday. If they can keep the Bears from running away with this game early, their own offense should be able to find enough of a rhythm at some point to exploit holes in a defense that has given up the third-most yards in the Big Sky.

Will the Eagles have a 100-yard rusher? Junior Micah Smith had a breakout performance in the third game of the season against Montana State, when he ran 13 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns. But since then, he has only carried 21 times for 82 yards. Sophomore Justice Jackson (77 carries for 361 yards this season) and redshirt freshman Tuna Altahir (81 for 267) have taken over the brunt of the rushing duties since, but neither has matched the single-game production Smith had two months ago. The Eagles have trailed most of the rest of their games this season, often by multiple touchdowns in the first half, so their running game has taken a back seat. Against Cal Poly, when they did play with a lead, they finished with a season-high 179 rushing yards.

Which senior ends his career with a notable big play? Aside from Talkington, the Eagles have almost entirely relied on juniors, sophomores and freshmen to throw, run and catch the football on offense this year. So it seems more likely that if a senior is to have a big game, it will come on the defensive side of the ball. Safety Keshaun King has a couple of interceptions this year and has played particularly well of late since senior safety Anthany Smith was shut down for the season. Linebacker Jaren Banks has anchored his position group all season and is third on the team with 56 tackles. But perhaps the most likely candidate for a big game defensively is end Mitchell Johnson, who leads the Eagles in tackles-for-loss (9.5) and sacks (four). He has also forced two fumbles and recovered one for a score against Weber State. In the team’s season-opening win over Tennessee State, Johnson disrupted the Tigers on a number of plays, finishing with 11 tackles and a pair of sacks. What a way to end his career, were he to end with a similar game in Saturday’s finale.

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