Eagles return to EWU to play SUU Thunderbirds

Winless Thunderbirds look to spoil EWU’s season for the second straight year


Bailey Monteith

Seniors Sam McPherson and Terrence Grady, and junior Chris Schlichting celebrate one of McPherson’s two touchdowns against Cal Poly. McPherson has five touchdowns this year.

By Taylor Newquist, Sports Editor

The EWU offense is rolling. After 490 total yards against Montana State last week, it is No. 4 in the FCS in yards per game with 554, and is averaging over eight yards per play.

This week the Eagles (4-1, 2-0) return to Cheney to take on Southern Utah (0-4, 0-1), a team that has struggled to stop opposing offenses—allowing an average of 580 yards per game.

The Thunderbirds haven’t had the easiest schedule thus far. Since losing its home opener against North Alabama (FCS Independent), SUU played three straight road games against Oregon State, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona. They come to Cheney well rested after a bye week.

Quarterback Chris Helbig had led the Thunderbird’s offense leading up to their last game against NAU. He had 926 yards and five touchdowns through the air in the first three games, while facing two PAC-12 defenses.

He left the game against the Lumberjacks with an apparent shoulder injury and returned wearing a sling. Head coach Demario Warren did not give detail on the injury after the game, but said it was “not good.” Backup Aaron Zwahlen threw two interceptions after replacing Helbig, including on the final drive of the game when they were threatening to tie.

The SUU offense will need to have its best performance of the year to keep up with the Eagles. EWU is averaging 43.4 points per game, more than the Thunderbirds have scored in any game this year.

A key factor to the Eagles’ offensive success has been its conversion rate on third down. EWU is No. 3 in the FCS, moving the chains on 50.7 percent of third down attempts, up from last year’s total of 40.06 percent that ranked No. 11 in the FCS.

“I think it’s all about game planning,”  EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “It’s about playmaking, and I think it’s about kinda calling things at the right time and getting a feel for the game. Coach Reeder has a really good feel, albeit it’s only his second year. When you talk about the low 40s last year and the low 50s this year, that’s not by mistake.”  

This year’s improvement in the rushing game has been a help, setting the Eagles up in manageable positions to convert third downs. This year, the SUU defense is allowing 257 rushing yards per game. Don’t expect the dynamic EWU backfield of Antoine Custer Jr., Sam McPherson, Tamarick Pierce and Dennis Merritt to show any signs of slowing down this Saturday.

The Eagles will be looking for payback, after losing 46-28 at SUU last year—a conference loss that kept them out of the playoffs when the committee gathered at the end of the season.

We do have a sour taste in our mouth when it comes to Southern Utah. I’ve seen someone on Twitter call it the revenge tour, the next two weeks, and I kind of like that.”

— Josh Lewis, Senior Cornerback

Next week the Eagles will travel to Ogden, Utah to play Weber State, the only other Big Sky team to beat them last season.

This week’s kickoff is scheduled for 12:10 p.m. at Roos Field. For the second straight week the game will be televised on ROOT Sports.•