CHENEY — Eastern Washington isn’t known for its salty defense.
The fifth-ranked Eagles (4-1, 2-0 Big Sky Conference) have shut down their share of foes in recent years, but when a program has the luxury of a prolific offense and a respectable defense, the former often garners the attention.
FCS pundits know EWU for its video game-like numbers, golden-arm quarterbacks and fleet-footed receivers, even when their counterpart is providing ample opportunities.
The Eagles’ defense just hasn’t had the year-to-year consistency as its offense, which is ranked fourth nationally (554.6) in yards per game.
But five games into the 2018 edition of defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s group, it appears to be special.
EWU has allowed an average of just more than 18 points per game in wins against Central Washington (58-13), Northern Arizona (31-26), Cal Poly (70-17) and Montana State (34-17).
The Eagles hopes that trend continues Saturday when they host defending co-Big Sky champion Southern Utah (0-4, 0-1) at Roos Field. The swooning Thunderbirds average just 26.5 points against FCS opposition.
Southern Utah coach Demario Warren, whose team upset the Eagles 46-28 in Cedar City, Utah, last season, said EWU’s defense also deserves plenty of praise.
“They’re a doing great job of making teams earn it,” Warren said. “They’re keeping points off the board, and that’s what you want. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter how many yards you give up”
EWU is giving up its share of ground, ranking 120th nationally in first downs allowed (127). Washington State (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12), which handled the Eagles 59-24 in Pullman, moved the chains 35 times.
Its own weight class, though, the Eagles have had a bend-but-don’t-break approach.
In nine of the Eagles’ 20 quarters this season, they’ve given up three points or less, including seven shutouts. Cal Poly and Montana State each scored on their first possessions, but the Eagles yielded few points after making the appropriate adjustments.
Senior linebacker Ketner Kupp, who leads the Eagles in tackles (35), wants even more consistency.
“We have about two or three clean quarters every game, it seems like, then we have a quarter we let things slide,” said Kupp, one of five EWU defenders with 24 or more tackles.
EWU is giving up 171 yards per game on the ground, an improvement from 2017 (193). It’s yielding 239 passing yards, also an improved mark from last year (272).
The Eagles’ senior-laden defense ranks third in the Big Sky in points allowed (26.4).
“I’ve been rooting for the defense since 1996. I root for the defense as much as the offense,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “Whatever it takes to get it done, we’ll do it.”
Best said he’s been impressed by the sustainability of the defense, which has bounced back from slow starts in three games.
“We may come out slow or fast, but as long as we can be sustainable, that’s what matters,” Best said.
The Eagles are also winning the turnover battle in their Big Sky wins, which has been a death knell for opponents the last nine seasons.
Since 2010, EWU is 43-0 when it wins the turnover battle.