The Eastern Washington Eagles had a conversion problem.
A third down conversion problem to be exact.
And, it proved to be their undoing in a 52-30 loss to the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks in a Big Sky showdown at Roos Field.
In the first half alone, NAU was 9 of 12 on third down. They finished the game 13 of 19. On the ground, through the air, third down was nothing but a number to the Jacks. A number and a recent focus of this NAU team.
“A couple of weeks ago, we started focusing on third downs.With a great offensive team like this, we’ve really got to convert our third downs,” said freshman quarterback, Case Cookus. “The best drive of the year was that 22-play drive for 93 yards (in the 2nd quarter). We converted multiple third downs and we kept going down the field.”
Cookus finished 22-30 for 224 yards and one touchdown. The Eagle defense got to him for four sacks, but Eagle penalties and key NAU third-down conversions kept many of their drives alive.
That 22-play drive was a sign of things to come for the Eastern Washington defense tonight. When Cookus wasn’t making timely throws, the running back trio of Kendyl Taylor, Casey Jahn and Corbin Jountti gashed through the EWU front for a combined 184 yards.
Although NAU’s Big Sky Conference 4th-ranked offense impressed, their defense was the surprise of the game. “They got into some different stuff,” said Coach Beau Baldwin. “They tweaked some things. (NAU) Coach Thompson did a good job with that.”
“We still have to react to that and respond, make checks or changes when they present themselves,” added Baldwin. “If you’re a great offense, or working toward being a great offense, you should feel like it doesn’t matter what the other team does. It’s about us executing and knowing that there’s opportunities. And those are the steps we still have to take.”
When the Eagles weren’t taking advantage of opportunities, they were giving them away.
Three fumbles by the Eagles, including a muffed punt by normally sure-handed Cooper Kupp, and one interception turned into 21 Lumberjack points.
“If you get in situations where a team is playing against you and they’re playing a cleaner ball game, which they did, that’s going to make it really tough,” said Coach Baldwin. “They outcoached us. They outplayed us.”
It was a shock to many of the 9,214 in attendance. With the score at 38-14 early in the fourth quarter, some were beginning to depart. They weren’t used to seeing an Eastern team seemingly dominated in all phases of the game.
NAU was 7-8 in red zone scoring opportunities while EWU was 4-6. While the Lumberjacks were succeeding in third-down conversions, the Eagles struggled going only 5-12.
Eastern Washington’s Jordan West finished 20-38 for 244 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Respectable numbers for most quarterbacks, but maybe not for one of the top passers in all of FCS.
“The margin of error in this conference, and even at this level, is razor-thin,” said Baldwin.
Razor-thin and no room for error for Eastern Washington. With two games left in the season and in second-place in the Big Sky Conference, the Eagles need to win the next two to have a chance to make the FCS playoffs.
Next Saturday, they head to Missoula to face their heated rival, Montana Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are 4-2 in the Big Sky, 5-4 overall. They escaped Pocatello with a 33-27 win over Idaho State Bengals after a fumbled snap on a Bengal field goal attempt was returned for a Montana touchdown.
Following the Montana game, the Eagles return home for the season-finale with Portland State. Both the Grizzlies and Vikings are a game behind in the loss column to Eastern Washington.
Everyone is looking up at Southern Utah who is 6-0 in conference (7-2 overall) and visit Portland State next Saturday before hosting Northern Arizona to close the season.
With only two weeks left in Big Sky Conference play, there is a lot of football left to play and playoff positioning to be decided.
Conversion will be the name of the game.