PROVO — When Appalachian State pulled off an upset for the ages back on Sept. 1, shocking then-No. 5 Michigan in front of 109,000 fans at the Big House, BYU running back Manase Tonga, like the rest of the country, took notice.
In fact, the first thing Tonga thought of was the Cougars' game against Eastern Washington.
The Eagles (4-2), who, like Appalachian State, are members of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision — more commonly known as Division I-AA — invade LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday. As the Wolverines learned this season, such teams can't be overlooked, or else the result could be an embarrassing upset.
"We don't want that to happen," Tonga said.
Eastern Washington, which belongs to the Big Sky Conference, is ranked No. 22 this week in the coaches' FCS poll.
Saturday's game could mark the largest crowd ever to watch the Eagles play. To this point, the biggest crowd was 59,504, a record that was set last season when they visited West Virginia (Eastern Washington lost, 52-3). Prior to that, the largest crowd it had played in front of was 39,581 at Arizona State. The Cougars are averaging 64,514 fans per game at Edwards Stadium this season.
The way Tonga sees it, the Eagles will have no shortage of motivation for this contest and will be looking to spring an upset of Appalachian State-like proportions.
"You know, I-AA teams have always had that mentality," Tonga said. "They're athletes that didn't get recruited by the big schools, so they ended up at these schools and they're trying to prove themselves.
The I-AA schools are very dangerous because they have that potential to break out, like Appalachian State did. I guess they play with a chip on their shoulder every time they get a chance to play against a big team, and we have to be ready for that. This is going to be their Super Bowl."
Eastern Washington coach Paul Wulff, whose team is in the hunt for a postseason FCS playoff berth, said the goal is simple. "We want to try to win, execute our game plan and play good football. If we do that we'll give ourselves a chance to win, no question. The bottom line is to keep improving as a football team. Every week we want to play good football and build on each week's performance. This week is no different — we want to continue to make ourselves a better football team."
After starting the season 3-0, the Eagles suffered back-to-back heartbreaking losses, a 28-21 setback to Portland State and a 24-23 defeat to Montana. Eastern Washington rebounded last week with a convincing 35-13 triumph over Montana State, which was ranked No. 11 in the FCS polls.
The Eagles boast a high-powered offense that ranks No. 3 in the FCS in total offense (486.7 yards per game), and sophomore quarterback Matt Nichols is No. 3 in total offense (327.2 yards per game). He threw for a career-high 451 yards in a loss to Montana on Oct. 6. Nichols has thrown only three interceptions in 211 attempts after throwing a school-record 17 interceptions last season.
Eastern Washington ranks No. 20 in scoring offense (34.3 points per game) and No. 20 in scoring defense (19.3). In their last two games, the Eagles have rolled up 1,040 yards of offense while yielding only 604 on defense.
"Their numbers are impressive," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Statistically they have thrown the ball very well, and the number of points they are scoring is very impressive. I've coached at the I-AA level, and having coached in the Big Sky (at Northern Arizona), I am familiar with the quality of play. From what I have seen they are well-coached and a quality opponent."
On the air
Eastern Washington (4-2, 2-2) at BYU (4-2, 3-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 1160AM, 102.7FM
TV: The mtn.
Y. game will be blogged
Whether you watch the BYU football game on television, listen on the radio or follow play-by-play on the Internet — you also can follow the game with Deseret Morning News sports writers online at deseretnews.com/sports for periodic analysis and commentary during the game.