The third quarter has been a detriment for the Eastern Oregon Mountaineers in their last two games, one that they know needs to be corrected if they’re going to get back in the win column.
In fact, it’s a proving point for the football team, according to EOU running back Victor Dias.
“(We’re) excited to have the opportunity to prove that we can finish games, that we have the team to finish games and beat teams that are good in close games,” he said.
Eastern gets its first crack at righting the third quarter woes — and tries to end a two-game losing streak — when it hosts No. 22 and undefeated Montana Western Saturday at Community Stadium.
“The focus has been to attack the third quarter, to come out at halftime with the mentality that regardless of whatever is on the scoreboard we can’t become complacent,” Dias said.
As the third quarter has gone for EOU so has the game result. The Mountaineers outscored College of Idaho 10-7 in the third quarter to break a 7-7 tie en route to a 24-21 win in their season opener.
In the previous two contests, though, it’s been a different story. The Mountaineers were outscored by Southern Oregon and Montana Tech a combined 43-3 in the third. EOU led both those games at halftime, but saw the leads vanish in 32-13 and 24-17 losses to those respective teams.
EOU Head Coach Tim Camp believes the team isn’t far off from where it needs to be, and said if the Mountaineers could have “create(d) our own breaks, we could be sitting at 3-0 right now,” rather than 1-2.
“We’ve been up on two teams and couldn’t finish,” Camp said. “We had some missed opportunities, but at the same time (we need to) just get better. Enjoy the process of coming out here and playing football and having a good attitude — and they do. There was a lot of energy out here (Wednesday). Hopefully it translates into a win on Saturday.”
Turnovers hurt EOU in those two games. The Mountaineers’ seven total giveaways came in the second half the last two weeks, and six were in the third quarter. Three of them came during a four-play sequence against Montana Tech following a leg injury that knocked quarterback Kai Quinn out of the game.
Quinn has been practicing since, but Camp said Wednesday who starts under center against the Bulldogs — Quinn, Saige Wilkerson or Joey Aliff — hasn’t been decided.
“I’ll make that decision as it gets closer. I never want to play anybody who’s hurt or not 100 percent,” he said.
The offense has struggled to put points on the board, averaging just 18 points per contest so far, but does lead the Frontier Conference in passing, averaging 286 yards per game. Conversely, though, EOU is eighth in rushing (97 yards per game).
“We certainly have not been effective offensively in the third quarter, specifically,” Dias said. “That reared its ugly head at Tech.”
The defense is only giving up 325 yards per contest — third best in the Frontier — and has forced seven turnovers, including four interceptions by defensive back Zack Jacobs. EOU has surrendered nearly 26 points per game, but one touchdown came after a blocked punt, one on a fumble return and all three allowed to Montana Tech were on a short field after a turnover.
Yet Jacobs said there are plenty of areas for the defense to improve.
“We’ve been playing pretty good (defense) lately, but we also have our mistakes that we can fix to hold even two more touchdowns off (the board in) those previous games,” he said. “We have to come in with a high energy and confidence, believing in one another, come out and give it all we got.”
Camp added the team did miss opportunities for a couple more interceptions against both Southern Oregon and Montana Tech. And while there are areas the team can improve defensively — such as getting lined up and getting everyone to the ball on a tackle — Camp believes the defense has been strong.
“I praised our defense after that (Montana Tech) game, just because I thought they kept us in it when it wasn’t looking good,” he said. “We’ve had our bright moments defensively this season so far, and I think this is a really good defense. They play hard. They play fast.”
Eastern goes up against a Montana Western team that brings its own strong defense to the table. The Bulldogs, who haven’t won in La Grande since 2015, are giving up just 11.3 points and 333 yards per game and have forced seven turnovers. They’re coming in off two close wins in their first three contests — 16-10 at Carroll College in their season opener, and 24-21 over Rocky Mountain last week.
Western has yet to have an individual rush or receive for 100 yards in a game, but Camp said the Bulldogs have had balance on offense so far this fall.
“They play good team football,” Camp said of Montana Western. “I think their defense compliments their offense and their approach to it. I think they’re very well coached. I think they do a good job of playing their game and sticking to the grindstone a little bit. One thing I’ve talked to our team about is Montana Western shows grit. I think they stick to 60 minutes of football. Some of it doesn’t look really good, but some of it looks really good. It’s the ability to stay within yourself and play your style of football.”
Jacobs added Western has found success by playing well together.
“It seems like they’re all meshing together at this point. Each player is trusting each other for them to get the yards they need to move the chains,” he said.
The Mountaineers know their backs are against the wall if they want to get back in the playoff hunt, and thus know how important Saturday’s game is for those hopes.
“It’s a must-win game for us, obviously,” Dias said. “We fully believe we, as a team, are capable of playing postseason football this year. In order to do that we need to go 1-0 each week.”
Camp, though, is taking that mindset a step further.
“The 1-0 is awesome, but I want to win every practice right now,” he said. “I want to get them ready to play on Saturday and instead of being so much winning every game, let’s win every play.”