Keep an eye on: Eastern Washington faces unknowns with SEC’s first opponent in Florida

The Eastern Washington football team has landed somewhere they’ve never played: Florida.

And what a journey it has been, from the start of the week to today, with travel plans evolving before everything settled in nicely for the Eagles – just a day later than expected.

Beating the Florida Gators — the first SEC program Eastern has ever played in — is going to be a daunting task for the Eagles, who have already been beaten by another FBS team this season by eight touchdowns. Players said during the week that the experience of losing to Oregon should help them learn more about the kind of speed and skill they’ll face Sunday morning in Gainesville. Kickoff is scheduled for 9 a.m. Pacific, with the game available to stream on ESPN-plus.

If the Eagles are to stay close, here are three game elements to follow:

1. How the Eagles offense begins: Eastern opened their game against Oregon by gaining 15 yards on their first 10 plays, leading to three punts and an interception. It didn’t help the Eagles cause that day and it won’t be against the Gators either. Quarterback Gunner Talkington will need to throw plenty of shots in tight windows against the Gators’ defense, and he’ll need his receivers to beat cornerbacks one-on-one. The Eagles have some of the most talented receivers in Big Sky, and the question will be whether Freddie Roberson, Efton Chism III, Nolan Ulm and Jakobie James can open up against the Florida secondary. It would also help the Eagles if they could kick off a running game like they did last week against Montana State, when Micah Smith ran for two touchdowns in the first quarter.

2. Who Earns Revenue Margin: Eastern has been remarkably good at taking more turnovers than he gives, going 67-1 since 2010 when he does. They lost turnover to Oregon, 2-0, and lost it 2-1 to Montana State. But if the Eagles defense can get some short pitches for their offense, there’s a way to keep this game close. Talkington has been cautious with football so far. He has just three interceptions and only a few other near picks. Most of his missed shots were missed smartly, landing where defenders weren’t. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson may have just had his best game, but he’s had five interceptions in four games this season and hit just 53.7 percent of his shots. If Eastern can stop Florida on first down and put them in second-and-long (and then potentially third-and-long) situations, maybe the Eagles can force Richardson to make a mistake and fabricate turnovers.

3. Which individual has the biggest stake: It’s the same factor that was emphasized before Eastern played in Oregon, and in that contest, Ducks quarterback Bo Nix played a near-perfect game of football, completing 28 of 33 assists for five touchdowns and no interceptions. Nix distributed his passes about as evenly as Oregon’s running backs distributed their carries, and Oregon demonstrated their depth by digging into Eastern’s defense at a rate of 6.8 yards per play. simply had no counterweight: No Eagles receiver or running back finished with more than 33 yards from scrimmage. They’ll need more than at least one player to force Florida to lean to one side of their defense rather than allow the Gators to play the Eagles straight and run them one-on-one. Someone – or two, or three – for the Eagles must give the Gators problems. Beating Florida at “The Swamp” won’t be easy, but for Eastern players, it’s no trip to Disney World. They go there with the intention of not just competing, but winning, no matter how big that order might be.

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