Plenty on line for EWU football in Big Sky finale

By Jim Allen, The Spokesman-ReviewNovember 14, 2012 

CHENEY, Wash. -- The air was cold Tuesday evening at Roos Field, but a fire had already been lit under the Eastern Washington football players' collective behinds.

"Coach Baldwin just gave a great speech, so the team's really fired up," kicker Jimmy Pavel said as the fifth-ranked Eagles took the field to practice for Saturday's regular-season finale at Portland State.

If that wasn't enough motivation, there's the reward of a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs: home cooking in more ways than one.

"That's right, it impacts whether we get to go home for Thanksgiving, so we know how big this game is," cornerback T.J. Lee III said while pulling at his headgear in the 35-degree chill.

A win over the Vikings would give the Eagles (8-2 overall and 6-1 conference) a share of the Big Sky Conference title regardless of the outcome of other conference games. More important, Eastern would likely host at least a second-round playoff game and perhaps a quarterfinal contest, depending on how the NCAA seeds teams when the bracket is announced Sunday morning.

A loss would mean a very different kind of bracket for the Eagles, possibly involving a long road trip.

"We are pretty focused," head coach Beau Baldwin said during practice. "It's a huge game, with a lot of implications, and there's a lot to play for."

Sometimes even that's not enough. Three weeks ago, the Eagles were playing to keep their No. 1 ranking but fell 30-27 at Southern Utah, which was 3-5 at the time. Last weekend at Roos Field, a 3-6 UC Davis team took the Eagles to the limit before falling 31-28 on a blocked field goal as time expired.

This week it's Portland State, 3-7 and coming off a 65-30 pasting at Montana State. But two weeks earlier, the Vikings dumped UC Davis 49-21. Four of PSU's seven losses are by eight points or less.

"We're definitely not looking past Portland State," said offensive lineman Will Post, a senior from Portland who's looking forward to celebrating a homecoming of sorts with friends and family.

Most of all the Eagles are proud of their ability to win the close ones this year -- Eastern is 5-2 in games decided by six points or less -- but would rather seal the deal with a bit less drama.

"Sometimes we come out and take our foot off the gas pedal, and we think someone else is going to make the play," senior receiver Brandon Kaufman said of the Eagles' second-quarter letdown against UC Davis, when they were outscored 22-0 and held without a first down in the period.

"Maybe we can take it easy in the fourth quarter if we take care of the first three quarters," Kaufman said.

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