“Bring your rain jacket.”
Western head coach Ryan Nourse said that comment with a chuckle, but with last weekend’s hail- and rain-ridden 38-7 win at Rocky Mountain College in mind, it’s less of a joke and more of legitimate advice.
The Bulldogs(3-0) return to Dillon for more, but harsh weather conditions will follow Western as they host Eastern Oregon (1-3) Saturday. The Mountaineers are coming off a difficult start, while the Bulldogs are looking to remain undefeated.
Momentum is building for Western, especially after the statement win in Billings. The Bulldogs have never started a season under Nourse at 4-0 and he will be looking to rectify that with an important home win over Eastern Oregon.
However, the Mountaineers’ record betrays them. With their one win being a road victory over state rivals and then-ranked No. 20 Southern Oregon shows that this team can hit with highly-regarded teams. EOU's two losses have come against a now-ranked Montana Tech team, a top-10 College of Idaho squad and FCS Portland State.
But the cold and wet conditions can further even the playing field, which Nourse says will be a factor and is the first key to Saturday’s contest at Vigilante Field.
Brave the conditions
Western’s win this past Saturday could’ve gone a much different route. A couple steady offensive drives in the second quarter saw the Bulldogs lead, but had they been tied or trailing, the onslaught of hail and rain in the second half could’ve seen the Battlin’ Bears mount a comeback.
“It’s going to be really important to establish another lead,” Nourse said. “Especially with the adverse weather. We started okay against Rocky, but we finished the half strong. We need to get going quickly and dispel the belief that Eastern Oregon might have.”
As mentioned, the Mountaineers will likely have some belief. They notched a huge road win already this season, why not in Dillon? To do so, head coach Tim Camp and Eastern Oregon will need to also get out to a fast start, which they’ve been unable to accomplish this year, scoring just three points in the first quarter over four games.
Starting strong is something Western has been hammering this year, and so far, it’s shown results. Besides the game against Carroll College, Western has been mildly successful in establishing a lead early. A key part of doing that is by being the more physically dominant team.
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Tough and physical
“Being the more physical team is something we’ve been working hard on since I got here,” Nourse said. “We want to get back to where we are running the football at will. We’re hoping that the game against Rocky was a catalyst for us to get better in that area going forward.”
Statistically, it appears like a sharp upswing. Bulldogs running back Kylar Prante ran for 187 yards and two touchdowns, while the Western defense totaled 11 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Improved play from the offensive line is a huge positive, but the defense growing into itself is just as encouraging. Forcing five turnovers and limiting the Bears to seven points is easily the best display the Bulldogs have put out this year.
“It’s another part of where we want to be as a football team,” Nourse said. “Tough, physical offense and a relentless defense that’s putting offense on its heels. We want to control the tempo of the game, and we finally did it this past week.”
This is complemented by the fact that Mountaineers quarterback Kai Quinn has thrown seven interceptions in four games. Expect Western to force the issue with Quinn and get aggressive with blitzes if the initial pass rush isn’t getting home.
Build Jund up
Whether you’re responsible for three turnovers or not, no quarterback likes to have three turnovers in the box score. Jon Jund couldn’t escape his three picks last week, but Nourse says the film shows that it was more bad luck than a bad performance.
“On Jund’s three interceptions,” Nourse said. “One he was hit as he threw, the other was tipped, and the third the receiver fell down, so they weren’t his fault as much, but it wasn’t his best outing either. We’ve got work to do this week.”
With that being said, it’s still important for Western’s passing offense to have a clean performance. With intense rain expected to fall, Jund’s air time may be limited, but a simple, foundational game after issues with Rocky is what the redshirt sophomore will look to do.
In their first three games against Frontier Conference teams, Eastern Oregon only gave up 417 passing yards, so it will not be an easy challenge for Western’s starting QB. However, if Jund can remain patient and make correct decisions, the number of yards will likely not matter.