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Eastern Washington University Football

Things to watch: Eastern Washington faces unknowns with first SEC opponent at Florida

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The Eastern Washington football team has landed somewhere it never has played: Florida.

And what a journey it was, from the start of the week to Sunday, with travel plans in flux before all settling in well for the Eagles – just a day later than they expected.

Beating the Florida Gators – the first program from the SEC that Eastern has played – is going to be a tall task for the Eagles, who already lost to another FBS team this season by eight touchdowns. Players said during the week that the experience of losing to Oregon should help them know better the kind of speed and skill they are up against Sunday in Gainesville. Kickoff is set for 9 a.m., with the game available to stream on ESPN-plus.

If the Eagles are to stay close, here are three elements of the game to follow:

1. How the Eagles’ offense starts: Eastern opened its game against Oregon by gaining 15 yards on its first 10 plays, leading to three punts and an interception. It didn’t help the Eagles’ cause that day and it won’t against the Gators, either. Quarterback Gunner Talkington is going to need to make a lot of throws into tight windows against the Gators’ defense, and he’s going to need his receivers to beat cornerbacks one-on-one. The Eagles have some of the most talented receivers in the Big Sky, and the question will be whether Freddie Roberson, Efton Chism III, Nolan Ulm and Jakobie James can get open against the Florida secondary. It would also help the Eagles if they could get a run game started as they did last week against Montana State, when Micah Smith ran for two touchdowns in the first quarter.

2. Who wins the turnover margin?: Eastern has been remarkably good when taking more turnovers than it gives, going 67-1 since 2010 when it does so. The Eagles lost the turnover ratio to Oregon 2-0 and lost it 2-1 to Montana State. But if the Eagles’ defense can get some short fields for its offense, there is a pathway to keeping this game close. Talkington has been careful with the football. He has just three interceptions and only a couple of other near-picks. Most of his missed throws have been missed smartly, landing where defenders weren’t. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson may be coming off his best game, but he has thrown five interceptions in four games this season and has completed just 53.7% of his throws. If Eastern can stop Florida on first down and put it in second-and-long situations (and then potentially third-and-long situations), perhaps the Eagles can force Richardson to make a mistake and manufacture turnovers.

3. Which individual has the biggest game?: This is the same factor as was pointed out before Eastern played Oregon, and in that contest Ducks quarterback Bo Nix played almost a perfect football game, completing 28 of 33 passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions. Nix distributed his passes about as evenly as Oregon’s running backs spread out their carries, and Oregon demonstrated its depth by dominating Eastern’s defense at a rate of 6.8 yards per play. Eastern had no counterbalance: No Eagles receiver or running back finished with more than 33 yards from scrimmage. They will need more out of at least one player to force Florida to lean to one side of its defense rather than allowing the Gators to play the Eagles straight up and handle them one-on-one. Someone – or two, or three – for the Eagles must give the Gators problems. Beating Florida at “The Swamp” won’t be easy, but for Eastern’s players, this isn’t a trip to Disney World. They are going there with the intent not simply to compete, but to win, tall as that order might be.