Eagles fly west to kick off season

Previewing EWU football's season opener against the Washington Huskies

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Eagles fly west to kick off season

The EWU football team enters Roos Field on Oct. 6, 2018 before a victory over Southern Utah.

The EWU football team enters Roos Field on Oct. 6, 2018 before a victory over Southern Utah.

Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner

The EWU football team enters Roos Field on Oct. 6, 2018 before a victory over Southern Utah.

Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner

Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner

The EWU football team enters Roos Field on Oct. 6, 2018 before a victory over Southern Utah.

By Drew Lawson, Sports Editor

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Football is back.

EWU’s quest to return to Frisco, Texas for the FCS National Championship begins at the FBS level. The Eagles kick off the campaign against the reigning Pac-12 champion Washington Huskies in Seattle at noon this Saturday, August 31.

On paper, the game looks like a mismatch. UW starts the season ranked #13 in the AP polls at the FBS level and has NFL talent at several positions. However, EWU fans know that the Eagles have proven in the past to be capable of gargantuan upsets.

EWU has beaten a Pac-12 opponent twice before. Most recently, the Eagles went into Pullman and knocked off Washington State 45-42 in 2016. EWU also won against #25 Oregon State 49-46 in 2013.

Saturday’s game will be the third time EWU has travelled to Seattle to take on UW. In both previous matchups, UW barely held off the Eagles’ upset bids with final scores of 59-52 in 2014 and 30-27 in 2011. In each game, UW was unranked.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives UW a 94.8% chance to win. The Huskies are favored by 19.5 points. Senior safety Dehonta Hayes said the team doesn’t pay attention to those odds.

“Those (odds) don’t reflect how well we’re going to catch the ball, deflect the ball or tackle,” Hayes said. “They’re just doubting us and we’re gonna prove them wrong.”

EWU head coach Aaron Best concurred and tossed in a reference to the movie Dumb and Dumber.

“So you’re saying there’s a chance?” Best said. “The kids play on Saturday, but the preparation of the game is won on Sunday through Friday. Execution is key … Let’s see how it plays out on Saturday.”

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Drew Lawson for The Easterner
EWU Head Coach Aaron Best addresses the team following an Aug. 24 open scrimmage.

For EWU to defy the odds and come back to Cheney victorious, many facets of the game have to go very well. Below are The Easterner’s three keys to victory for EWU.

Keys to the Game for EWU

1. Pressure the quarterback.

It’s no secret that a good pass rush is important for success at any level of football. EWU’s defensive line is led by seniors Jim Townsend and Dylan Ledbetter and sophomore Mitchell Johnson. The trio has 18 career sacks combined. Junior Keith Moore also produces consistently, but he is out Saturday as he recovers from a shooting incident on July 23. A consistent pass rush may be even more paramount than usual for the Eagles on Saturday for several reasons.

Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner                                                                          The EWU defensive line gets set during a 38-7 victory over Idaho on Oct. 27, 2018.

EWU is inexperienced at cornerback after losing its top four players at that position from 2018. While there are many returning players at safety and rover, including senior Dehonta Hayes and juniors Calin Criner and Kedrick Johnson, the Eagles are largely unproven elsewhere in the back five. That group will be tasked with defending a UW receiving corps that could be one of the best in the country.  If EWU’s defensive line is able to create pressure, it may ease some of the challenges for the secondary in keeping up with the Husky receivers.

UW’s quarterback will be Jacob Eason, a junior transfer from the University of Georgia. Eason is a talented player who lost his starting job at Georgia due to an injury and an exceptional performance from his replacement, Jake Fromm. If EWU’s defensive line can’t rattle Eason by getting pressure in his face, he has the talent and arm strength to pick apart EWU’s secondary.

Pressuring Eason won’t be an easy task. One of UW’s strongest units is its offensive line. The projected starters have a combined 106 career starts. Left tackle Trey Adams returns after losing his 2018 season due to injury. Adams was a second-team All-American in 2016. If EWU’s defensive line can consistently win matchups in the trenches, the Eagles’ odds of an upset increase dramatically by taking away one of UW’s biggest advantages.

2. Get off to a hot start offensively.

Every year UW prides itself on a strong secondary. Despite losing four players to the NFL, this year figures to be no different. This presents an immense challenge for junior quarterback Eric Barriere and the rest of the EWU offense. However, much like EWU, UW’s secondary is young and largely inexperienced.

A fast start would serve EWU well when matched against a talented but inexperienced core of corners and safeties. Oftentimes, young players are more prone to playing off emotion and momentum. This could swing either way depending on the early stages of the game when the Eagles have the football. If EWU manages to put a couple touchdowns on the board in the first quarter, the momentum would swing the Eagles’ way and UW could start to feel the pressure. However, if UW gets several stops and/or forces a few turnovers early on, EWU will have a tough time recovering against an already confident Husky defense.

Hitting on big plays will be critical to a fast Eagle start. EWU has the personnel to do it. Aside from Barriere, receivers Andrew Boston and Dre Dorton plus running backs Antoine Custer Jr. and Dennis Merritt are all capable of springing big chunk plays. They’ll have to do so for EWU to have a chance Saturday.

3. Barriere has the game of his life.

If EWU were to shock the college football world and knock off UW, it would be one of the biggest upsets in recent memory within the sport. When these types of upsets do happen, historically the underdog has received a legendary performance from one or several of its star leaders. Take the example of EWU’s 45-42 upset of Washington State in 2016, when then-quarterback Gage Gubrud accounted for 551 yards of total offense, at the time a school record. In this Saturday’s case, that legendary performance may have to come from Eric Barriere.

Richard N. Clark IV for The Easterner
EWU QB Eric Barriere evades a tackler during a 50-19 EWU victory over Maine in the 2018 FCS Semifinal.

Barriere has proven himself to be capable of monster showings during big-time games. He tied a school record with seven touchdown passes in the FCS semifinal victory over Maine in 2018. A week earlier in the quarterfinal against UC Davis, Barriere led a 75-yard touchdown drive that gave EWU the lead for good and was capped off by a 35-yard touchdown scamper by running back Sam McPherson. Barriere, who accounted for four touchdowns in the game, had a 29-yard run of his own on the drive to set up McPherson’s score.

UW has the best defense that Barriere will face this season and possibly in his collegiate career. For the Eagles to have a chance Saturday, Barriere has to rise to the occasion and be better than that defense by making big plays with both his arm and legs. In 2014, when EWU lost to UW but scored 52 points, then-quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. tossed seven touchdowns against the Huskies. Adams holds many of EWU’s quarterback records and has stated that Barriere is better than him. Adams will have to be right if EWU hopes to escape Seattle victorious.

Five Eagles to Watch 

Below are five EWU players to keep an eye out for on Saturday. These players are either first time starters or are taking on a larger role than they did in 2018.

WR Andrew Boston- #9

Bailey Monteith for The Easterner
EWU WR Andrew Boston (#9) celebrates a touchdown during EWU’s 34-29 comeback victory over UC Davis in the 2018 FCS quarterfinals.

Boston was a reliable starter for EWU in 2018, earning third-team freshman All-American honors after racking up 531 yards and four touchdowns. However, the redshirt sophomore still took a backseat to star receiver Nsimba Webster. Now that Webster is off to the NFL, Boston has emerged as EWU’s top receiver. Look for Barriere to try and find Boston in the red zone and on deep shots down the middle of the field.

RB Antoine Custer Jr.- #28

Bailey Monteith for The Easterner
EWU RB Antoine Custer Jr. cuts upfield during a 59-20 Eagle victory over UC Davis on November 10.

Custer enters 2019 as the clear-cut No. 1 running back in Cheney after a junior season in which he ran for 613 yards and eight touchdowns but missed four games due to injury and was the backup to McPherson. EWU head coach Aaron Best has brought a much bigger concentration on the running game since taking over in 2017, and this year it’s up to Custer to lead that trend successfully. EWU is undefeated (6-0) when Custer rushes for over 100 yards.

LB Chris Ojoh- #58

Bailey Monteith for The Easterner
EWU LB Chris Ojoh mean mugs into the camera during a 59-20 EWU victory over UC Davis on November 10, 2018.

Ojoh played all 15 games in 2018, but started just eight. He still managed to record 105 total tackles, including 11 in the National Championship against North Dakota State. Last year’s leader of the linebacking corps, Ketner Kupp, is currently trying to win a roster spot with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. This year, look for Ojoh to rack up tackles and be one of EWU’s defensive standouts.

DE/LB Justiss Warren-#40

Warren is listed as the backup to Mitchell Johnson at the “buck” position on the defensive line. He’s worth watching Saturday because he’s a graduate transfer from UW, playing his first game with EWU against his former team. Warren was a tight end and outside linebacker for the Huskies and is transitioning to a pass rushing role for the Eagles. He’ll be trying to get pressure on the quarterback while matched up against offensive linemen he used to share a locker room with and practice against.

K Andre Slyter-#37

Slyter won the place-kicking job for EWU and subsequently gets the unenviable task of trying to replace Roldan Alcobendas, who won the Fred Mitchell Place-Kicker Award in 2018 after one of the greatest seasons for a kicker/punter in FCS history. Alcobendas was a perfect 16-for-16 on field goals last year. Slyter fills his role now, and is not lacking for confidence. He reportedly told Best that he can kick up to a 60-yarder. Slyter certainly has the leg to be the next great Eagle kicker. Slyter will have to show consistency with that leg strength for Alcobendas to not be missed too much in 2019.

 

EWU vs UW kicks off at noon PST on Pac-12 Networks from Husky Stadium.

 

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