CHENEY -- The slate is wiped clean this week for the sixth-ranked Eastern Washington University football team on Hall of Fame Day at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Coming off the school’s biggest non-conference NCAA Football Championship Subdivision game in school history, the Eagles begin defense of their Big Sky Conference title when Weber State visits Saturday. Kickoff is 4:05 p.m.
The Eagles finished the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 2-2 record, including last week’s 49-34 loss when the then No. 2 Eagles fell to No. 4 Sam Houston State. Whether conference, non-conference or playoffs, no other game in EWU history has matched two higher-ranked FCS teams than its match-up with the Bearkats. A collective ranking of five is the next-best.
“They are one of the top two or three teams in the country and we were playing on their turf, so it was a challenge,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin of the loss to the Bearkats, who moved up to second in this week’s rankings. “They are very good and they earned the right to be where they are in the rankings. But our players are disappointed and there are some things we can keep doing to close the gap. Until then, we have to suck it up, learn from it and come back and fight to get our third win against Weber State.”
With the loss, Eastern slipped only four spots to sixth in The Sports Network FCS top-25 poll. The Eagles are seeking a seventh league title, with previous titles in 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2012.
Weber State, which had been outscored by an average score of 50-14 this season, is coming off a 31-3 home loss to Sacramento State in its league opener. The Wildcats are now 1-4 overall and won’t get a bye in their schedule until Oct. 26. Their head coach is Jody Sears, who spent five seasons (2003-07) as the defensive coordinator at Eastern Washington under Paul Wulff.
After a 50-40 season-opening home win against Stephen F. Austin, WSU went on the road for three-straight games and were out-scored 183-19 in three lopsided setbacks. The Wildcats lost 70-7 at Utah and 70-6 at Utah State in a pair of games against in-state FBS foes, and then lost 43-6 at 12th-ranked FCS foe McNeese State.
Last season, in the first start in the career of Eagle quarterback Vernon Adams, Eastern eked out a 32-26 victory in Ogden.
“They were really impressive against Stephen F. Austin, and you can’t get caught up in their record and a lot of stats,” warned Baldwin. “They have played some incredible teams already. They are well-coached and they have a good scheme – we saw that last year. We were in a dogfight with them a year ago that came down to the wire, and I would expect the same this year from them.”
With its own challenging non-conference schedule now behind them, the Eagles face teams in the next two weeks who are a collective 2-7 (1-4 Weber State, 1-3 North Dakota). But then the Eagles face 4-1 Southern Utah and 3-1 Montana before taking on a pair of foes in November who are currently nationally-ranked.
“This was definitely the toughest preseason schedule we’ve had since I’ve been here in terms of the first four games,” said Baldwin, who is in his 10th year overall at Eastern. “But I invite it – I love it. It’s helped us be battle-tested because we’ve been in some serious wars.
“It’s tough and it’s a challenge,” he added. “We were put on a stage on the road against one of the top teams at our level and now we have move forward in a very tough conference.”