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Sports >  EWU football

Eastern Washington faces daunting task against Florida Sunday – stopping the run

Sept. 29, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 29, 2022 at 9:06 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

As others in the athletic departments of Eastern Washington University and the University of Florida have worked through the logistical challenges of playing a football game just a few days after a major hurricane passes through the state, Eagles players and coaches have been largely focused on something else:

How to beat the Gators?

Two other teams have done it this year – the Gators are 2-2 overall, 0-2 in the SEC – but those were Kentucky and Tennessee, each 4-0 teams ranked among the top eight teams in the FBS.

The challenge is all the more daunting for a 1-2 Eastern Washington team that is coming off a loss to Montana State, the fourth-ranked team in the FCS, and also lost by 56 points to 13th-ranked Oregon, which just beat Washington State in Pullman to improve to 3-1 on the season.

“There are not a lot of things that stack up good for us going into this one,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said on Tuesday.

Best pointed out a few of those factors: Florida plays fast, it expects to play in front of a massive crowd, and it has the usual scholarship advantage that FBS teams have in these matchups against FCS teams like Eastern.

Compounding that, Florida comes in averaging 194 rushing yards per game, a strength facing off against what has been Eastern’s most glaring defensive weakness: rushing defense.

Through three games, the Eagles – ranked 20th in the FCS Stats Perform poll – have allowed 908 rushing yards, which at a per-game basis ranks last among the 123 teams in the championship subdivision. The next-closest Big Sky team on that ranking is Idaho State at 102nd, allowing almost 100 fewer yards per game (209) than Eastern.

“We’re learning,” EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Copp said, “and we’ve played three very, very good offensive football teams that hang their hat on rushing the football.”

There is certainly truth to that. Tennessee State came into Cheney on Sept. 3 with a quarterback (junior Draylen Ellis) who likes to run and a running back (junior Devon Starling) who last year gained 1,112 yards from scrimmage. That duo led a Tigers’ rushing attack that gained 290 yards on 54 carries against the Eagles.

A week later, Eastern had its first crack at an FBS school, and the Oregon Ducks ran for 263 yards on 48 carries, bounding ahead to an early lead that ballooned into a 70-14 victory.

Then, on Saturday, it was clear after starting quarterback Tommy Mellott left with an injury that the Bobcats were going to run the ball, and that’s what they did: They ran 60 times – on 75% of their offensive plays – and gained 355 yards doing it, exceeding the 291 yards they rushed for against the Eagles last November.

And like last November, Montana State left Cheney on Saturday with a three-point victory. That may prove to be a costly defeat, considering that after this game against Florida the Eagles travel to Weber State and then host Sacramento State, two unbeaten teams that are ranked among the top 10 in the FCS.

Yet there have been segments of those games in which Eastern’s defense did play well, and it is on those that Copp hopes to build.

“When you’re tackling well, it gives you a chance to play good defense. We’ve been really good at that in pockets,” Copp said. “In the Tennessee State game and the Montana State game, there were pockets in the middle of those games when we played really, really good defense. We’ve got to continue to build on that.”

After allowing TSU to score touchdowns on three of its first four drives, the Tigers’ next six drives went punt, fumble, punt, fumble, punt, punt.

During a stretch of the second half against MSU, the Bobcats punted three straight drives and then on their next possession threw an interception in the end zone.

On both occasions, Eastern’s offense used those stretches to retake leads.

“Through three games, I think we’ve played on defense a little bit better when we’ve been backed up against the wall and so there’s no time to think,” Best said, and that in those moments the urgency of the moment has led to the Eagles getting some big stops.

Copp said that one focus, too, is playing well on first down.

“When we have success on first down, we have success on drives at a high rate,” Copp said. “We’ve got to win first down.”

One statistic related to those is the Eagles’ tackle-for-loss number: They have 21 on the season, and their per-game average of seven ranks 26th nationally and second among Big Sky teams.

On Sunday, the Eagles will face another team with a dual-threat quarterback. Florida sophomore Anthony Richardson is set to make his sixth career start. His latest was almost certainly his best: He completed 24 of 44 passes for 453 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown; he also ran for 62 yards for two more scores.

“(We’ll) key on him and know where his strengths and weaknesses are,” EWU junior safety Ely Doyle said . “We’re going to have a game plan for him.”

The question then is whether this Gators team will become just the latest to find space running the ball against the Eagles, or whether this is the week Eastern’s defense puts it all together, builds on its previous stretches of success and stays with Florida over the course of four quarters.

“The goal is to go on the road and win,” Doyle said, “so that’s our goal, and we’re going to stick by that.”

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