Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Big Sky notebook: Eastern Washington looks to deny winning season for Northern Arizona

Eastern Washington linebacker Samarai Anderson seen during a Big Sky Conference game against Montana State in Bozeman last Saturday.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Blake Gobel has taken his time around the Eastern Washington football facilities this week as he and his teammates prepare to play Northern Arizona on Saturday.

He’s been leaving practice a little later and lingering a bit more.

“I’m just trying to take this week a little more slowly,” the EWU senior tight end said Tuesday during media availability.

“I’ve been playing sports my whole life, and this could be it,” Gobel said. “So I’m just slowing things down and trying to enjoy it before I move on to the next chapter of my life.”

With a 4-6 overall record and a 3-4 mark in Big Sky play, Eastern will miss the FCS playoffs for the second year in a row no matter what happens against the Lumberjacks (4-6, 4-3). This year and last will also be the first back-to-back losing seasons for the program since 1994-1995.

But head coach Aaron Best said the team wants to send the departing seniors out on a winning note.

“They’ll remember this one forever and ever,” Best said. “No matter what the outcome is, you always remember, usually, your first one and your last one.”

The Eagles’ task Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney – kickoff is at 1 p.m. – is to beat an NAU team that is looking to finish with a winning conference record for the first time since 2017.

The Eagles have won the past four games between the programs; NAU’s most recent victory (52-30) came in 2015 in Cheney. EWU’s loss that season was the first of three in a row to end the year, a finish that kept the Eagles from earning a seventh victory.

The playoffs aren’t at stake for Eastern, but a fifth win would further validate the claims inside the program that progress was made this year over last season’s 3-8 record.

“(We are) way further along than we were last year,” Best said.

Through 10 games, the Lumberjacks haven’t been particularly fearsome on either side of the ball statistically: Their offense (359.8 yards per game) ranks ninth in the conference, six spots behind the Eagles’ (416.4); their defense ranks sixth (386.9), four spots higher than the Eagles’ (441.4).

NAU has also made a conference-low three field goals (on nine attempts) and has the third-lowest kickoff average in the Big Sky.

But NAU has still won more than it has lost, with victories over Northern Colorado (28-7), UC Davis (38-21), Weber State (27-10) and Montana (28-14) – the only conference loss this year for the Grizzlies.

Eastern will likely play without a couple of key contributors for redshirt reasons, as junior quarterback Jared Taylor and freshman safety Derek Ganter Jr. have played in four games. Under NCAA rules, players can play in up to four and still redshirt.

Ganter, who has started at safety the past three games, is not on the depth chart – nor is redshirt sophomore safety Kentrell Williams Jr., who earlier this season missed a game due to injury. Ganter has 11 tackles this season; Williams has 45, fourth most on the team.

Taylor has rushed for 219 yards and three touchdowns this season, but Best alluded to preserving his redshirt earlier in November.

Junior wide receiver Efton Chism III is closing in on a few more career milestones. He has 218 receptions, three behind Brandon Kaufman, who is fourth on Eastern’s all-time receptions list. Aaron Boyce is third with 222.

Chism, who has 829 receiving yards this season, ranks 14th on the program’s all-time list with 2,438. He is 6 yards behind 13th-ranked Tom Bassett and 86 behind 12th-ranked Jason Anderson. First-place receiver Cooper Kupp had nearly three times as many yards (6,464) from 2013 to 2016.

Missoula hosts big Brawl

No. 3 Montana (9-1, 6-1) and No. 4 Montana State (8-2, 6-1) will play Saturday in Missoula in their annual rivalry game – the Brawl of the Wild – with a Big Sky championship on the line.

For the first time in series history, both teams are ranked in the top five nationally. Montana State has won five of the past six, including a 55-21 victory last year in Bozeman.

The Bobcats shared the Big Sky championship with Sacramento State last season. Montana’s last Big Sky championship game in 2009.

Davis, SSU meet with playoffs on the line

The Big Sky’s next-best playoff hopefuls – after the sixth-ranked Idaho Vandals (7-3, 5-2) – meet Saturday in Davis, California, where UC Davis (6-4, 4-3) hosts No. 8 Sacramento State (7-3, 4-3).

The Hornets’ three losses this year came to Idaho, Montana and Montana State, but a win against the Aggies would clinch a playoff spot for the Big Sky defending champion. A win for the Aggies might get them into the playoff discussion at 7-4 overall.

Sacramento State has won the past three games in the series.