Sports

Eastern Washington’s defensive line gets better when it matters most

Yes, that Eastern Washington defensive line was every bit as dominant last week on film as it looked from the stands.

“No doubt about it,” Eagle defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said Tuesday — three days after a 38-0 FCS quarterfinal win over Richmond.

“Of course, that doesn’t guarantee us anything this week,” Schmedding said as Eastern prepared for Saturday’s semifinal against Youngstown State.

But it certainly helps. The Eagles did a number on Richmond — actually a few numbers, including six sacks and five turnovers while holding the Spiders to 205 yards of offense and 3.0 yards per play.

Want some more compelling numbers? Starting safeties Mitch Fettig and Zach Bruce combined for just seven tackles, while roverback J.J. Njoku — who’s always in the middle of the action — had only two.

For the defensive backs, “It makes life more enjoyable,” said Schmedding, who also coaches the Eagle safeties. “You don’t have to cover for six to eight seconds.”

This is defense the way it’s drawn up: linemen plug the holes and linebackers make the stops. Against Richmond, linebackers Miquiyah Zamora and Ketner Kupp combined for 15 tackles.

“They make everyone’s job easier,” Njoku said Tuesday. “Keep them happy and keep them eating.”

Njoku meant food, but Eastern also is devouring quarterbacks these days. The Eagles had a season-high six against Richmond.

And while defensive end Samson Ebukam had a career day (two sacks, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception), he’s been doing that since the opener at Washington State.

Comparing Samson with his All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp, coach Beau Baldwin said that “As big as Samson was last week, sometimes the other guys don’t get enough credit.”

All year, that’s been junior nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, who didn’t make a single tackle on Saturday — which was just fine.

“The way they were bringing it outside, there wasn’t much for us to do,” Tiuli shrugged as he walked off the field Saturday night.

Not quite true: Tiuli was such a presence, the Spiders struggled to run inside. That didn’t surprise Baldwin, who credited Tiuli with “taking a mature approach to the offseason”, dropping weight to get to a more athletic 300 pounds.

Recognition came at the end of the regular season, when Tiuli made first-team all-Big Sky.

“You never know if you can get to that level, but he earned the respect of the other coaches, how they viewed his ability to affect the game inside,” Baldwin said.

Then there’s field end Albert Havili, a Federal Way High School grad and converted inside linebacker who missed all of 2015 with a knee injury and was buried on the depth chart when the season began.

On Saturday, Havili was the other bookend, getting five tackles and sacking Richmond’s Kevin Johnson twice.

“If Samson didn’t have the game he had, we could be talking about Albert,” Schmedding said.

The challenge will be similar on Saturday against Youngstown State’s run-oriented offense that Schmedding describes as “big and physical.”

The Penguins also have a running back in senior Jody Webb, whom Schmedding says is “as good as we’ve seen this year.”

At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Webb also may be one of the smallest, but he’s rushed for 1,200 yards and 6.3 yards a carry.

He also getting better when it matters most: Webb has at least 140 yards in each of the last five games.

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