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Playoff primer: Eastern Washington’s defense picking up, offense dropping off heading into rematch with Montana

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Griz vs. EWU 03.JPG (copy)

Montana junior kick returner Malik Flowers (19) runs the ball in front of Eastern Washington’s Demetrius Crosby Jr. (31) during a 34-28 loss on Oct. 2 at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington. The Griz will play the Eagles again at 7 p.m. Friday in Missoula.

MISSOULA — Eastern Washington’s offense hasn’t been as potent recently as it was when the Eagles beat Montana earlier this season, but EWU has made some strides on the defensive side of the ball.

Their strong defense was evident in their first-round playoff victory, a grind-it-out 19-9 win over Northern Iowa on Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington. The nine points are the fewest they’ve allowed since 2019 as they prepare to come to Missoula for a second-round playoff game at 7 p.m. Friday against Montana, which suffered a 34-28 loss at EWU on Oct. 2.

“Our defense played great,” EWU senior quarterback Eric Barriere said after his offense put up a season-low 19 points. “They’re honestly what kept us in the game.”

The Eagles have given up an average of 19 points per game on their current three-game win streak and 23 points per game over their past five games as they’ve gone 3-2. In their 7-0 start, they had allowed 27.1 points per game.

The Eagles did give up 423 yards to UNI, their fifth most in 12 games. But they made a pair of goal line stands inside the 5-yard line, resulting in zero points for UNI.

“Today, looking at it, I’ll take the Eagle D. They were up for the challenge,” EWU coach Aaron Best said after the win. “From the first-and-goal in the first quarter to the (interception) to end the game, what a phenomenal, phenomenal day for the defense. They flat out won the day.”

The Eagles intercepted three passes to tie the program’s single-game playoff record. Keshaun King accounted for two picks to tie a school playoff record, while Marlon Jones had one.

EWU tallied 12 pass breakups to set a program playoff record. Demetrius Crosby had four pass breakups, which is an EWU individual playoff record.

The Eagles are forcing an average of 2.3 turnovers per game in the past eight games. They forced an average of 1.5 turnovers through the first four games before they faced UM.

“This isn’t just a one-off,” Best said. “They played awesome from front to back defensively, but we’ve played pretty good defense all year. They just get overshadowed a lot of times by the gaudy offensive numbers that Eastern has. We played a pretty damn good team in Northern Iowa, and we played as a pretty damn good team today as a whole.”

Offense is off

EWU averaged 54 points per game in its 7-0 start to the season as it looked like Barriere might run away with the Walter Payton Award as the FCS offensive player of the year.

The Eagles scored 50 or more points five times in those seven games, topping out with a 71-point performance against Idaho. The only times they were held below 50 came when they scored 35 against FBS UNLV and 34 against Montana, which was then a season low for EWU.

In the past five games, the Eagles are averaging just 30.6 points per game. They were limited to 34 points in a 35-34 loss to Weber State and were held to 20 points in a 23-20 loss to Montana State. They fired offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker after the loss to the Cats.

While EWU has recently struggled to score at its previous torrid clip, the team has taken care of the ball. The Eagles have turned the ball over only 10 times this season, including only four times in the past six games after they turned it over six times in the first six games.

“It’s very important,” Barriere said of protecting the ball. “We want to put up points, but it’s playoff football. So, you got to take your wins as you can. If it’s 7-0, like 14-7, a win is a win at the end of the day. We just trying to survive and advance.”

Part of taking care of the ball is running the ball effectively and tossing high-percentage passes. EWU ran for 129 yards, its sixth-best outing this season, against a Panthers defense that was allowing just 83.3 yards per game on the ground. The Eagles went with some three-running back sets, opting for extra blocking, which they also got from its tight ends.

“A salty defense, probably the best defense we’ve faced thus far from front to back this year,” Best said about UNI. “Nothing was easy, and that was evident.”

Special struggles

EWU has had some adventures in the kicking game, making just 11 of 20 field goal attempts and moving onto a third player to attempt field goals and extra points this season on Saturday.

True freshman Wyatt Hawkins came off the bench to go 2 for 2 on the first field goal attempts of his college career, hitting from 22 and 30 yards. He was called upon after true freshman Jackson Cleaver missed a field goal and an extra point in the first quarter, dropping him to 3 of 6 on FGs this season.

“Wyatt Hawkins came through and kind of gave us a shot in the arm of confidence in the kick game,” Best said. “That’s what great teams do: They step up, even in the midst of a game.”

Cleaver started the year 2 for 2 in his debut against Montana, scoring six points that made the difference in EWU’s 34-28 win. He stepped in that game to replace sophomore Seth Harrison, a preseason third-team All-American who’s gone 6 of 12 on field goals this year but hasn’t kicked since Oct. 23, when he missed an extra point with 2:51 to play in a 35-34 loss to Weber State.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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