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CEDAR CITY -- The Southern Utah football team will look to bounce back from the loss to South Dakota and stay undefeated at home when it plays host to No. 18 Eastern Washington on Saturday.
The T-Birds dropped to 4-5 on the season, 2-2 in the Great West Conference, with Saturday's 45-21 loss to South Dakota, eliminating them from conference championship and playoff contention. They are 4-0 at home and 0-5 on the road, with Saturday's game marking their home finale.
SUU football coach Ed Lamb said turnovers and an inability to stop the run led to the Coyotes' manhandling of the T-Birds.
"Number one was turnovers," he said. "At the end of the first half, we played 50 snaps of defense and 15 snaps of offense so that's 50 direct scoring opportunities for them and only 15 for us and it was a direct result of turnovers.
"Now after the turnovers, our defense has got to do a better job of getting off the field, holding up on third down, holding up against the run, and our offense has got to do a better job of sustaining drives."
Lamb said the pressure South Dakota was able to create helped cause the T-Birds' turmoil.
"I credit the pressure they gave us," he said. "A couple of the interceptions were tipped passes and (sophomore running back) Austin Minefee's been very sure-handed for us, he fumbled a kickoff return, so one hand we'd like to think that those aren't patterns, but at the same time, you've got to credit their team for playing hard and causing distractions."
Junior linebacker Troy Bunting said to improve the T-Birds' run defense, they just have to get back to the simple stuff.
"We've just got to make tackles," he said matter-of-factly.
Bunting said the loss to South Dakota hurts, but "we're just trying to keep that behind us and go back to playing the kind of defense we did when we were winning."
"I think you play a little harder because you've got that chip on your shoulder," he said. "I can't speak for the whole defense, but I'm a little embarrassed and it's a little extra motivation to keep them under a specific number of yards rushing and just win at home."
Senior center Stephen Boyer said the loss to South Dakota shouldn't deter the T-Birds from finishing strong.
"It's a big loss, it hurts, but we've still got a lot to do this season. We've still got some good teams coming up and we want to beat 'em."
Beating Eastern Washington will not be an easy task as they enter the game with the No. 9 offense in the country, which includes the No. 7 passing offense. Their quarterback, senior Matt Nichols, has the ninth-ranked passer-efficiency rating in the NCAA FCS with a 154.7, while ranking eighth in the FCS in total offense with 289.9 yards per game.
Lamb said the key to slowing down their prolific offense is to get pressure on Nichols.
The Eagles have also been able to run the ball well when they've chosen to, averaging 139 rushing yards per game. Sophomore running back Taiwan Jones has led the way for Eastern Washington with 903 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Bunting said the T-Birds must play solid team defense to slow down the Eagles.
"We're really just looking to play good solid defense — make tackles, break up passes and get interceptions, fumbles — the standard defensive components that win football games," he said.
The Eagles also boast the FCS's leading tackler, junior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who averages 14 tackles per game to go along with three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
"Our philosophy on offense since we've gotten here has been about doing what we do, executing what we do, so we're not going to change our game plan around a player like that," Lamb said. "We respect him, we know who he is and we know that we've got to account for him in our blocking schemes and make sure he doesn't beat our guys, but really it's more about taking the challenge to get guys like that blocked than it is about changing the game plan."
The T-Birds have their own prolific passing offense, which is ranked no. 12 nationally with 270.89 yards per game. They have also run for more than 100 yards as a team in every game except Saturday's loss to South Dakota, in which they had 47 yards on 12 carries.
"Just expect a lot more running," senior offensive tackle Aarron Po'uha said. "We've been passing a lot lately, but we feel a lot better about running the ball, proving ourselves… If we can take time off the clock with that rushing game, it will make it a lot better. That's what we're working a lot more on, because we know we can pass it, so we're going to run it."
Po'uha and Boyer said the Eagles do a lot of twists with their front seven on defense, but the T-Birds should be prepared for it because they've "seen it all before."
Bunting said it's important for the T-Birds to win the home finale and send the seniors out on a high note.
"We're all pretty close," he said. "We care a lot about each other, we care a lot about the seniors … It's really important, to me at least, to send them out the right way."
The T-Birds and Eagles square off starting at 1 p.m. Saturday at Eccles Coliseum.