As Eastern Washington begins its late-season push for a Big Sky Conference crown, one can’t help but think of a key Nov. 10 date in Cheney with sixth-ranked UC Davis.
But before the fifth-ranked Eagles (6-2, 4-1 Big Sky) can look ahead to the first-place Aggies (7-1, 6-0) and their two Walter Payton Award candidates – the record-breaking tandem of quarterback Jake Maier and receiver Keelan Doss – they’ll have to focus on the present: an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday at struggling Northern Colorado (2-7, 2-3).
A letdown in Greeley, Colorado – a place where EWU was given fits its last two visits, a 43-41 win in 2015 and a 35-28 win 2010 – would surely take the glow out of next’s week’s EWU-UC Davis meeting, a game with both conference title and playoff implications.
For EWU, the path to at least a share of a Big Sky title requires little explanation: Win the next three games, including a regular-season finale at Portland State (4-4, 3-2) on Nov. 16.
Lose one or two games in that stretch, and the FCS playoff committee decides EWU’s postseason fate.
Second-year head coach Aaron Best, whose team adopted a “Leave no doubt” credo following last year’s 7-4 record and playoff snub, said EWU is dialed in to the task at hand: a Northern Colorado team on a rare two-game winning streak.
The Bears, who lost cannon-armed QB and four-year starter Jake Knipp early in the season with a broken collarbone, appeared to be a team heading for a winless campaign before flipping the script against Northern Arizona and Southern Utah the last two weeks.
NAU and SUU were both down to their third-string quarterbacks in the Bears’ wins, a 42-14 rout over NAU in Greeley and a 42-39 win at SUU. Northern Colorado gave its offense plenty of opportunities, and quarterback Keaton Mott (441 passing yards, five TDs in the two wins) and running back Milo Hall (247 rushing yards, three TDs) made the most of them.
A constant for Northern Colorado’s balanced offense (384 yards per game) has been speedy wide receiver Alex Wesley, a track and field All-American, who is having his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
“They put 42 points on the board the last two games,” Best said. “They’re capable of scoring points. We’re aware of that.”
Northern Colorado’s offensive line has struggled, yielding 37 sacks this season. The Bears are also among the most turnover-prone FCS teams (21).
The Bears’ defense isn’t getting much pressure on QBs, with six sacks all season, and is giving up nearly 35 points a game.
Early in the the season, the Bears played a pair of ranked opponents tough at home.
They nearly rallied to beat 11th-ranked McNeese State in a 17-14 loss to start the season, and trailed No. 4 Weber State 35-28 in the fourth quarter before falling 45-28.
EWU quarterback Eric Barriere, now the Eagles’ full-time starter after All-American Gage Gubrud was ruled out for the season with a toe injury, sees a capable Northern Colorado team.
“They’re a good defense, and on a two-game win streak,” said Barriere, who had 396 total yards and four touchdowns in a 38-14 rout of Idaho last week. “We just have to come out and play our game, because they’re going to give us all they have. We can’t go in there with nothing less (than our best).”
EWU brings the country’s fifth-most productive offense (526 yards per game) and an equally menacing defense, giving up a Big Sky-best 15.8 points in conference play.
On Northern Colorado’s weekly coaches show, head coach Earnest Collins and running back Trae Riek talked about EWU and the Bears’ recent surge.
“They’re usually strong,” Collins said about EWU, which has never lost to the Bears in conference play. “Good QB play, good receiver play. We see what they’re capable of, saw things take advantage of. We’re looking forward to the opportunity of playing them down here.”
Riek said his team is as confident as it’s been.
“Coaches kept saying, ‘Look, you guys have the talent. There’s a reason we are in these close games, you just have to get over that hump’ ” Riek said. “And after the NAU win, there’s this new-found belief that we can play with anyone.”
This will be the Eagles’ first game on a grass field since Nov. 5, 2016, at Cal Poly.
EWU No. 9 in first
FCS Committee poll
The Football Championship Series Committee released its first top-10 poll of the season this week, and EWU is ranked ninth.
Akin to the FBS College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night, the rankings convey where teams would be seeded if the regular season ended today.
The top eight seeds in the FCS playoffs earn first-round byes in a 24-team tournament.
Big Sky Conference rivals UC Davis and Weber State were ranked third and fourth, respectively. Weber State beat EWU 14-6 last month.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.