Eastern Washington secondary ready for Cal Poly’s pass attack after stretch of run-heavy opponents
Oct. 20, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 20, 2022 at 8:36 p.m.
Eastern Washington Eagles defensive back Ely Doyle (25) brings down Sacramento State Hornets running back Cameron Skattebo (4) in the second half at Roos Stadium on Saturday Oct. 15 2022 in Cheney. (James Snook/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The last couple games haven’t exactly been boring for Marlon Jones Jr. and the Eastern Washington Eagles secondary.
But facing a trio of Big Sky teams who prefer to run more than almost any team in the country – as the Eagles have during their 0-3 start to conference play – isn’t exactly what a defensive back wants to play against each week.
“You want teams to throw the ball more,” said the sophomore Jones, one of EWU’s starting cornerbacks. “That’s what you go against every day in practice.”
This week, it seems Jones and the rest of the Eagles’ defense will get their wish when Eastern (1-5, 0-3 Big Sky) travels to play at Cal Poly (1-5, 0-3) at 5 p.m. Saturday in San Luis Obispo, California.
“I know they pass a lot. They’re going to try to take some shots down the field,” said junior safety Ely Doyle. “(But) they’re going to run on us too because teams have been running on us. They’re going to do a little bit of both.”
Cal Poly leads the Big Sky in passing and is coming off a 40-31 loss at Idaho State in which the Mustangs threw for 394 yards.
The three Big Sky teams Eastern has lost to this season – Montana State, Weber State and Sacramento State – combined to throw for 488 yards in those games against the Eagles.
Each of those teams, who are all ranked among the top 5 in the latest FCS national rankings, unabashedly are committed to running the football, and they are very good at it. Nationally, Montana State ranks second in rushing yards per game (281.1), Sacramento State ranks third (275.5) and Weber State ranks 14th (208.7).
The next-highest ranked Big Sky team is UC Davis at No. 33, a team Eastern will not play this season.
So, playing Cal Poly is a welcome change for an Eagles defense that has given up more rushing yards per game (298.3) than any of the 123 teams in the FCS.
“The first six teams we’ve faced, predominantly those teams have and do lean on the run,” EWU coach Aaron Best said this week, referring also to Oregon, Florida and Tennessee State. “So it will be different. I don’t think Cal Poly’s going to come into the game thinking they’re going to run it 40 or 45 times.”
Yet just because Cal Poly can throw the football – and it can, at a Big Sky-leading rate of 344 yards per game – doesn’t mean the Mustangs necessarily want to lean on it exclusively.
“I’m pleased we’re able to move the ball through the air,” Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin said on Wednesday. “It gives you an opportunity to be able to be in a game even when you’re down.”
That was true last week against Idaho State, a game in which Cal Poly trailed by 23 points before drawing to within six thanks to three touchdown passes by junior quarterback Spencer Brasch.
“Unfortunately if you rely on it too much, usually it doesn’t lead to a lot of victories,” Baldwin said. “So yes, I’m happy we’re moving the ball, but there are other statistical things that are more indicative of championship-level offenses that we need to work toward.”
Baldwin pointed out, too, that some of his best teams when he was the head coach at Eastern Washington were the ones that were much more balanced in terms of play calling if not total yards, and that’s the kind of balance he is striving to achieve in his third season at Cal Poly.
Eastern’s defensive stats too are a bit misleading in that while teams have been able to run effectively against the Eagles, teams have also had little trouble passing against the Eagles when they’ve chosen to do so. Eastern has given up 9.8 yards per passing attempt as well as 6.1 yards per rush. Each of those ranks as the third-most in the category among all FCS teams.
Some of that, of course, relates to the quality of its opponents. Eastern has faced one of the most difficult schedules in the FCS. But Jones wasn’t willing to leave it at that.
“I think it’s a combination of that and, to be honest, we haven’t been performing as well as we would have liked to,” Jones said.
Eastern has also played without a number of would-be starters at various times this season. Defensive tackle Josh Jerome missed the games at Florida and Weber State before returning to face Sacramento State. Cornerback Darrien Sampson left that Florida game early and hasn’t played since.
Demetrius Crosby Jr. didn’t play against Florida and has played part of a cornerback rotation in the two games since. Senior safety and captain Anthany Smith didn’t play against Sacramento State and is not listed on the two-deep for this weekend’s game. Other depth players have missed time as well.
Those absences have created more opportunities for junior Tre Weed, sophomore Cage Schenck and, notably, redshirt freshman safety Kentrell Williams Jr., who had eight tackles and an interception last week against the Hornets.
But it has also put more pressure on Doyle and senior safety/nickel Keshaun King to play more downs than the team would like. Doyle – who leads the team with 50 tackles – played all 83 snaps last weekend, something he wasn’t doing when Smith was in the lineup.
“I was a little gassed, but (safeties) coach (Zach) Bruce told me during the game, ‘the team needs you; the defense needs you,’” Doyle said. “I’m going to give my all for my teammates.”
Best said he expects Cal Poly to try to spread out Eastern’s defense and to make them go sideline to sideline, and he praised Baldwin’s abilities as a play caller.
He doesn’t expect the Mustangs to run like previous EWU opponents have, but he’s not expecting the Mustangs to totally flip the balance the other direction either.
“We’ve got to be prepared for anything,” Best said. “(But) it’ll be a different game in terms of challenging some different areas of the defense that maybe haven’t been challenged for 40, 45 (plays) in a game.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.