The numbers don’t lie: Eastern Washington’s defense has been pushed around the field a few times this season.
But when push comes to shove in the fourth quarter, it’s usually the other guys who are flat on their backs.
In their last four games, the Eagles have conceded just two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Statistically, it’s been their best quarter of the season: They’ve outscored opponents 103-64 in the final 15 minutes.
“That’s a mental thing,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “We’re not going to be holding up four fingers going into the fourth quarter and not having it mean something.”
Against Illinois State last week, the Eagles gave up 520 yards, but shut out the Redbirds on their last four possessions while giving up just 83 yards in the last 19 plays.
“They threw a lot at us, things we hadn’t seen,” senior linebacker Zach Johnson said. “But I just continue to say, keep believing. We believe we’re going to get a stop on D.”
That intensity has ratcheted up in the playoffs, expecially in the red zone. In the second round, Wagner scored on all five chances from inside the Eastern 20, but managed just one touchdown.
Illinois State had five shots as well, settling for two field goals and two TDs.
“We don’t worry about how they get down there, we just worry about it stopping them in red zone,” Baldwin said.
It’s hardly coincidence, according to Baldwin, who since spring ball has made red-zone defense a staple of almost every practice.
The result? “Our guys are confident,” Baldwin said going into Saturday’s FCS semifinal game against Sam Houston State that will send the winner to the national title game.
And healthy. After surviving a spate of injuries, especially at linebacker, the Eagles are as healthy as they’ve been all season apart from cornerback T.J. Lee III, who is questionable for the Bearkats with a lower back strain.
A healthy defensive line had allowed to Eagles to rotate as many as 10 players.
“It all starts with the D-line, everything still starts with those guys,” said Baldwin, who has made the defensive line a priority in recruiting since he took over the program in 2008.
“If we can put together a minimum of eight (different players on the line) that’s always going to help you.”
Especially on Saturday, when Sam Houston State will bring speed and brawn along with its varied, triple-option offense. For the Eagles, it’s a good thing this won’t be played on paper, where Sam Houston ranks 10th in FCS in total offense at 461 yards a game while Eastern is 79th in total defense, yielding an average of 394.
The Bearkats are even better in scoring offense, ranking second, but so is the Eagles’ defense, rating 48th in FCS.
Baldwin said he “doesn’t get hung up” looking at points or yards.
“Every game is different,” Baldwin said after the Illinois State game. “… You can’t get caught up in the 35 points as being an offensive shootout. There were plays being made all over, and the defense definitely made some stops.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.