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 past four games, the Eagles have conceded two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Statistically, it’s been their best quarter of the season: They’ve outscored opponents in the final 15 minutes, 103-64.
“That’s a mental thing,” Eagles coach and Curtis High graduate Beau Baldwin said. “We’re not going to be holding up four fingers going into the fourth quarter and not having it mean something.”
The Eagles gave up 520 yards against Illinois State last week, but they shut out the Redbirds on the last four possessions while giving up 83 yards on the final 19 plays.
“They threw a lot at us, things we hadn’t seen,” said senior linebacker Zach Johnson, a Tumwater High graduate. “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, especially 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 stopping them in red zone,” Baldwin said.
It’s hardly coincidence, said Baldwin, who since spring ball has made red-zone defense a staple of almost every practice.
“Our guys are confident,” Baldwin said going into today’s FCS semifinal game against Sam Houston State that will send the winner to the national title game.
And the Eagles are 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 with a lower back strain.
A healthy defensive line had allowed the 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 today, when the Bearkats will bring speed and brawn along with their 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.”