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Eastern Washington University Football

Things to watch: Coming off close win, Eastern Washington tries to build momentum at Portland State

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Darrien Sampson is sure Eastern Washington’s football team can go on a run.

“We took a couple tough losses during the season,” the senior cornerback said. “We know our true potential as a team, and last week we stated that.”

Last week, Eastern beat Weber State 31-23 to get back to 2-2 in Big Sky play and improve to 3-4 overall.

On Saturday, the Eagles face Portland State, which has an identical record and a similar need to win the rest of the way.

Three of Eastern’s four losses this year have been by one possession – in the case of the Idaho State loss, it was by a single point – and the Eagles have reiterated their confidence and cohesion all year.

But winning away from home in the Big Sky is no easy task, EWU head coach Aaron Best said this week.

“Anybody can win on any Saturday, anywhere in this conference,” Best said during media availability on Tuesday. “… It’s tough to win, and it’s tough to win on the road, and it’s even tougher to win on the road in the Big Sky.”

The Eagles have done it once this year, a 27-24 win at UC Davis on Sept. 23. Here are three aspects to watch for as they try to earn another one in Hillsboro on Saturday.

How well does Eastern’s defense play?

The Eagles are coming off a victory in which they held Weber State to 369 yards of offense, the first time Eastern had held a Big Sky opponent under 400 this year. Portland State will surely try to use its ground game to beat Eastern as it did last year in Cheney, and the Vikings can lean on dual threat quarterback Dante Chachere to keep Eastern’s defense on its toes. How Eastern handles him – with a spy, with a variety of coverages, with an extra player in the box – will be something to look for. Eastern has also generated a bit more pressure on quarterbacks lately, with six sacks in the past two games. But perhaps most crucial will be how often Eastern Washington can stop Portland State on third downs. The Vikings’ third-down conversion rate (51%) ranks seventh nationally, and their third-down defense (35.6%) ranks 33rd in the nation.

Which team wins the turnover battle?

Eastern Washington has gone four straight games without giving the ball away, and its four total giveaways this season are among the fewest in the nation (just three teams in the FCS have fewer). Last week’s win was also notable in that it was the first time Eastern had won a game in which it didn’t force a turnover since it beat UC Davis 32-22 on April 3, 2021. You have to go back even further – to Oct. 7, 2017 – to find the last time Eastern won a road game without forcing a turnover. Eastern’s task of winning Saturday will be made a whole lot easier if it can get to Chachere and force him into making mistakes. Portland State hasn’t been particularly prone to turnovers – it has eight, tied for the third fewest in the Big Sky – but it hasn’t forced many either: Its eight are tied for the third fewest in the conference.

Who wins the time of possession?

One of the byproducts of Portland State’s effective running game and frugal care of the football is that the Vikings rank second in the Big Sky in time of possession, averaging nearly 33 minutes per game. Eastern, though, is coming off a game in which it held the ball for 34 minutes , 44 seconds, when it found a way to run the football effectively despite playing with just one healthy running back.

If the Eagles can take an early lead, look for them to continue to run the ball and drain the clock, thereby limiting how many possessions the Vikings get. That would be a positive sign for the Eagles’ offense, which wants to give its defense plenty of breaks and time on the sidelines as it tries to get back to .500 with three games left in the regular season.