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Eastern Washington looks to lock up Big Sky title, first-round bye at Portland State

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 15, 2018, 9:29 p.m.

Eastern Washington  quarterback Eric Barriere  races for a long touchdown run against Idaho defenders Tevin Duke and Tre Walker (8)  on Oct. 27 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere races for a long touchdown run against Idaho defenders Tevin Duke and Tre Walker (8) on Oct. 27 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Fourth-ranked Eastern Washington has put itself in a favorable position.

The Eagles (8-2, 6-1) are essentially a lock for the FCS playoffs and can earn at least a share of the Big Sky Conference crown with a win Friday night at Portland State.

Beating the Vikings (4-6, 3-4) would also sweeten EWU’s postseason pot, likely giving the Eagles a first-round bye and second-round home game.

The regular-season finale at Hillsboro (Oregon) Stadium is consequential for EWU. For up-and-down Portland State, it’s an opportunity to finish Big Sky play with a .500 mark and get a rare win in the Dam Cup rivalry game.

EWU head coach Aaron Best isn’t looking past the Vikings, who upset then-14th-ranked Montana 22-20 in Missoula last month.

“We need to play our game,” said Best, whose Eagles have won seven of their past nine against Portland State. “We can’t get caught up into where we are playing and who we are playing or how we are playing – we have to get to our ninth victory.”

The Eagles wrapped up Big Sky Conference titles in their previous three visits to Portland in 2012, 2014 and 2016. If they want to celebrate another Big Sky title in Oregon, they’ll have to overcome one of the conference’s best defenses.

Portland State, which is coming off losses to Idaho State (48-45) and North Dakota (17-10), boasts the conference’s third-best defense (398 yards per game), holding five of seven Big Sky foes to 20 points or less.

The Vikings lost their first two games to a pair of bowl-bound FBS programs (Nevada and Oregon).

“They have a unique (defensive) front, that we haven’t seen at all this year,” EWU defensive end Henderson Belk said. “So we’ll be ready for stunts and pressure, and try to beat them in man coverage.”

Dual-threat quarterback Davis Alexander paces the Vikings’ run-first offense (404 ypg), totaling 1,989 yards and 20 touchdowns.

When Alexander does go to the air, 6-foot-3, 240-pound All-Big Sky tight end Charlie Taumoepeau is his favorite target (505 yards, five TDs)

In Portland State’s 59-33 loss to EWU in Cheney last year, Davis completed 28 of 51 passes for 383 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, and rushed for a team-high 70 yards. Taumoepeau caught nine passes for 149 yards.

EWU safety Tysen Prunty, a Portland native, sees a Vikings offense capable of scoring points in a hurry.

“They always have a high-powered offense,” Prunty said. “Their receiving core is pretty strong, their running backs are decent and they definitely have two solid QBs.”

Prunty faces a high-powered offense every day.

EWU, which routed then-No. 4 UC Davis 59-20 last Saturday, ranks second in the country in total offense (546 yards per game).

Running back Sam McPherson (875 yards) and receiver Nsimba Webster (925 yards) are close to the 1,000-yard mark.

Sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere, who is 4-1 as a starter since taking over for the injured Gage Gubrud, spearheads EWU’s balanced offense. He’s completed 118 of 201 passes for 1,287 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also rushing for 354 yards and five touchdowns on 55 carries (6.4 yards per carry).

This will also be the best EWU defense Portland State has seen since the Eagles’ national title season in 2010. The Eagles are allowing a Big Sky-best 16 points a game.

Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum, an Eagles graduate, praised EWU for its improvement in defense and the running game.

“Everyone had the question, ‘Aaron Best, he’s an offensive lineman, what’s he doing as a head coach?’ ” Barnum said of Best, who took over the EWU program in 2017 when Beau Baldwin was named offensive coordinator at California. “But he’s doing a helluva job, keeping it going and picking it up. Adding to it.”

Third-ranked Weber State (8-2, 6-1) and No. 9 UC Davis (8-2, 6-1) share the conference lead with EWU. Weber State visits Idaho State (6-4, 5-2) and the Aggies host last-place Sacramento State (2-7, 0-6) on Saturday.

If EWU, Weber State and UC Davis all win this weekend, Weber State would earn the automatic bid to the playoffs, according to the conference. The Wildcats hold the tiebreaker over the Eagles (Weber State beat EWU 14-6 in October).

EWU breezed past UC Davis at Roos Field last week. Weber State and UC Davis didn’t meet this season.

If Weber State loses to Idaho State and EWU and UC Davis both win, EWU would win the automatic bid because of a head-to-head win over the Aggies.

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