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Things to watch: Eastern Washington must cash in on red zone opportunities against Cal Poly

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington football players are aware of the team’s 3-5 overall record.

It’s not what they would like it to be.

“It’s not a reflection of the work we put in during the offseason,” junior running back Justice Jackson said.

Nor is it a reflection of the work he and the team have put in during the season, Jackson said.

“But for us, it’s a clean slate every week,” he said. “We want to be 1-0. We’re not going to cry about it.”

The Eagles, who are also 2-3 in Big Sky play, are a win away from surpassing their total from a season ago. They are three wins away from climbing above .500 with three games to play.

Although they are disappointed with how the season has gone on the ledger, players have asserted for weeks that the team doesn’t have any quit in it.

“Every day is a new day,” redshirt sophomore safety Kentrell Williams Jr. said Tuesday during media availability.

“We have to flip the page in everything we do. We lost the past week, and this week we’re on to Cal Poly.”

The Mustangs (3-5, 1-4) are one of three teams below Eastern Washington in the Big Sky standings.

Here are three aspects of Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 1 p.m. at Roos Field in Cheney, to watch for as the Eagles try to stay ahead of Cal Poly.

Touchdowns or field goals? After Saturday’s 47-35 loss at Portland State, the Eagles lamented their inability to finish in the red zone. Four times in the first half, Eastern got inside the PSU 20-yard line, and three of those times they settled for field-goal attempts (they made 2 of 3). Eastern entered halftime trailing 20-13, but that deficit could have been a lead had the Eagles finished those drives with touchdowns. Against the Vikings, the Eagles’ offense did plenty right: EWU gained 513 yards, totaled 28 first downs (four more than the Vikings did) and converted on 9 of 17 third downs. But considering how porous Eastern’s defense has looked, the Eagles don’t want to settle for field goals. They want touchdowns, and lots of them, which could make Cal Poly’s offense one-dimensional.

Can the Eagles stop the run this time? Among Big Sky teams, only the Idaho State Bengals (181) have attempted fewer rushes than the Mustangs this season (227), and none of the 12 teams has been as inefficient at running as Cal Poly, which has gained just 2.8 yards per rush. It’s an encouraging combination for the Eagles, who have allowed opponents to gain 6.3 yards per carry. Idaho State ran 20 times against the Eagles in their matchup earlier this year and gained just 49 yards, which contributed to Eastern building a 28-point halftime lead. That said, when forced to throw even more than usual, the Bengals were plenty successful doing so against the Eagles in the second half, when they erased the deficit in a 42-41 win. But it seems much more likely that, if the first three quarters play out similarly against Cal Poly, the Eagles won’t surrender such a lead at Roos Field.

Will the Eagles make more plays on special teams? EWU head coach Aaron Best pointed out this week the importance of playing complementary football in all three phases and was particularly forceful about the importance of special teams. He said the team needs to play “fearless” and that “we’ve got to have an outstanding day on special teams.” The Eagles have not been as vulnerable this year by fakes or returns as they were last year. At kickoff returns – both the execution and the coverage – they rank among the Big Sky’s top four. In the kicking game, too, no team in the conference has made more field goals than the Eagles (they are 12 of 17) and only two teams have made all of their extra points (EWU is 27 of 27). Where the Eagles could use a big play is in the punt return game. They rank at the bottom of the Big Sky with 24 return yards, gained at an average of 3.4 yards per return. Cal Poly ranks in the bottom half of all special teams categories among Big Sky teams.