In a city where the Eastern Washington football team has struggled in the past, and with a rivalry game looming next week, the Eagles suffered no demons or distractions on Saturday night.

For the third consecutive week their offense had its way with an opposing defense, this time racking up the 11th-best single-game yardage total in program history in a 50-21 victory over Southern Utah at Eccles Stadium in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.

The sixth-ranked Eagles, 4-0 for the first time in 24 years, had 673 yards of offense, gained at a rate of 8.2 per play. In its past three games, the Eastern offense has amassed 2,072 yards while committing no turnovers.

Saturday, senior Eric Barriere threw for 518 of those on 30-of-43 attempts. He threw four touchdowns, and running back Dennis Merritt ran for three more. Merritt has nine on the season, the most in the Big Sky.

The Eagles never punted – though they lined up to do so on the fourth play of the game – and they sustained five drives of at least 10 plays.

EWU redshirt freshman Efton Chism III scored two touchdowns, the first of the game as well as the last. He finished with a career-high 147 yards on eight receptions, including a 36-yarder on a fake punt that continued the Eagles’ opening drive.

Eastern has not played up to expectations in Cedar City, Utah. This was the fifth straight time they had played at Southern Utah as a ranked team, and two of the previous four times the Eagles had lost, including in 2012 as the top-ranked team in the FCS.

Last week, Eastern’s offense stalled after halftime, and the Eagles just barely withstood Western Illinois’ second-half comeback attempt, holding on for a 62-56 victory.

Add to that a looming contest against No. 4 Montana next week, and the circumstances of this contest against Southern Utah looked murky for the Eagles.

But the Eagles were mostly unfazed, leading the entire game. They didn’t let up in the second half, when they outgained the Thunderbirds 263-157 and outscored them 20-7.

Yet Southern Utah (1-3, 0-1) had its opportunities. It opened the second half with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that got the Thunderbirds within single digits at 30-21.

Then, EWU’s Seth Harrison missed a field-goal attempt. On the Eagles’ next drive with the score still the same, a penalty – one of 10 called against the Eagles – set Barriere and the offense against a third-and-23 from the Southern Utah 45-yard line.

The Thunderbirds dropped eight players into coverage on the play, but Barriere stepped into the clean pocket and threw over all those defenders to Talolo Limu-Jones in the end zone. That touchdown and extra point made the score 37-21.

From there, the Eastern defense forced a three-and-out and popped loose a fumble, which Brock Harrison recovered. The Eagles scored touchdowns on their next two drives, and their defense didn’t surrender any more points.

“At halftime, we talked as coaches and as a team about urgency,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said in his postgame radio interview. “We were playing OK (in the first half), but our lack of urgency allowed us to not play as well as we could. … We had more urgency in the last 30 minutes.”

Next up is a game against 3-0 Montana at Roos Field, a place the Eagles have played once this season.

“I don’t think we need to get fired up,” Chism said in his postgame radio interview. “We’re already fired up.”

After a first-half burst demonstrated just how dominant Eastern Washington’s offense can be, a second-half stall showed that even a five-touchdown lead isn’t always safe.

In the end, it barely was.

Senior quarterback Eric Barriere struggled through the Eagles’ final five drives of the game, even missing one of them entirely. But he scrambled for a key first down in the game’s final minutes to deny Western Illinois the chance at a go-ahead drive and to instead secure a 62-56 victory for Eastern on Saturday.

The seventh-ranked Eagles escaped Macomb, Illinois, with a perfect 3-0 record, one they haven’t had since 2007.

Barriere finished with a career-high 542 passing yards on 31 of 45 attempts, leading an offense that racked up 754 yards of offense, the most Eastern has ever recorded against another Division I team. Barriere’s six touchdowns tied him with Gage Gubrud at 87 career touchdowns, third on the Eagles’ all-time list.

The Eagles also scored 55 first-half points, topping the record 46 they scored a week ago against Division II Central Washington.

That was when everything was looking quite good for the Eagles, who broke a 21-21 tie by scoring 34 straight points, capped by a 51-yard touchdown catch by senior Johnny Edwards IV just before halftime.

They rolled into the second half, too, when Dennis Merritt scampered 73 yards for a touchdown that made the score 62-28.

By then, Barriere had thrown touchdowns to Efton Chism III, Merritt, Edwards (for 76 yards), Talolo Limu-Jones and Freddie Roberson. He also had 487 passing yards, the most ever thrown in a half by an FCS quarterback.

On the Eagles’ next drive, though, Merritt was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 play at the Western Illinois 21-yard line. At that point, they had 718 yards of offense.

On their next five drives they added just 36 more yards. Three times, they went three-and-out. Four times, they punted.

“We (both teams) played in the heat. That’s the go-to for most people, but we both played in it,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said in a postgame radio interview. “We scored 55 points in the first half on offense in the same heat, and it actually got cooler in the second half. I’m not interested in justifications as to why there wasn’t as much explosion in the second half.”

Meanwhile, the Leathernecks (0-3) just kept scoring.

They scored the game’s final 28 points, including touchdowns on their last three drives. Throughout the game, the Leathernecks were more methodical on offense, possessing the ball for more than 35 minutes. They also converted on all three fourth-down attempts and scored touchdowns on all six of their red-zone visits.

They also made all their extra-point attempts – Eastern’s Seth Harrison had one blocked – and that looked like it might prove crucial after WIU senior wide receiver Dennis Houston scored his third touchdown of the game on an 8-yard reception with 2:02 left, cutting Eastern’s lead to six points.

Calin Criner recovered the subsequent onside kick, but the Leathernecks still had three timeouts, and two plays later the Eagles faced third-and-7 at the WIU 42. That’s when Barriere scrambled for 10 yards and a first down, and from there the Eagles were able to extinguish what remained on the clock.

The game featured only one turnover, an interception by Eastern’s Demetrius Crosby Jr. in the third quarter, and the teams combined for just three sacks.

Houston led the Leathernecks, catching 11 passes for 175 yards while also carrying three times for another 50. Senior quarterback Connor Sampson threw for 425 yards on 31 of 46 attempts and tossed four touchdowns.

For Merritt, Eastern’s senior starting running back, the game marked his second 100-yard effort in a row. He carried 12 times for a career-high 148 yards and two scores and also added 63 yards on four receptions.

This was the first time Eastern had played Western Illinois, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, which is scheduled for a rematch in Cheney in 2025.

Eastern opens Big Sky Conference play next Saturday at Southern Utah.

As its top teams continue to rack up victories, the Big Sky Conference maintained its hold on five of the top 14 spots in this week’s STATS Football Championship Subdivision poll.

Among the five are four programs that have become accustomed to national rankings: Montana (2-0) at No. 4, Eastern Washington (2-0) at No. 7, followed by ninth-ranked Weber State (1-1) and 13th-ranked Montana State (1-1).

Two of those four have an FBS win on their resumes this season, which can only help the conference come time to select at-large bids for the FCS postseason.

But not to be forgotten is UC Davis (2-0), sitting right behind Montana State in the rankings at No. 14.

The Aggies boast a victory over an FBS team (Tulsa) and also a quarterback, Hunter Rodrigues, who has been named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year two weeks in a row after a 322-yard, four-touchdown passing performance – plus a rushing touchdown – Saturday in a 53-7 win over San Diego.

“I’m surrounded by a bunch of great players, and anyone could do what I do with the 10 guys I’m on the field with,” Rodrigues said during a press conference Tuesday.

“Well let’s not say ‘anyone,’ ” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins quickly interjected from two chairs over. “Let’s not say that.”

Hawkins praised the quarterback’s pocket presence and credited him for not turning over the ball in the team’s first two victories.

He also highlighted how soft-spoken Rodrigues is, a phrase Eastern Washington coaches and players have used to describe senior quarterback Eric Barriere, who shared Offensive Player of the Week honors with Rodrigues after the Eagles’ 35-33 victory over UNLV.

“(Rodrigues is) handling the protection game up front, getting us in and out of things, making clean throws, tough throws, making some plays with his legs and taking care of the football,” Hawkins said, “so there’s a reason he’s been the two-time offensive player (of the week) in the league, and he’s deserving.”

Eastern Washington is scheduled to play at UC Davis on Nov. 13.

Hill gets landmark win at Weber

After losing 40-17 to the Pac-12’s Utah Utes in their season opener, the Weber State Wildcats crushed FCS newcomer Dixie State 41-3 on Saturday for Jay Hill’s 53rd victory, which ties him for the most for a head coach in program history.

The Wildcats have won at least a share of the conference championship each of the last four years during which they were 26-3 in Big Sky games.

Dixie State, which is making the transition from Division II to Division I, is part of the newly formed Western Athletic Conference. The Trailblazers are scheduled to play four Big Sky teams this year, including UC Davis this weekend and Montana on Oct. 9.

Weber State hosts No. 2 James Madison on Saturday in a matchup of top-10 teams. It will be JMU’s first-ever regular-season game played against a Big Sky opponent.

Coaches at UNC, MSU get first victories

First-year Big Sky coaches Ed McCaffrey (Northern Colorado) and Brent Vigen (Montana State) each earned their first collegiate head coaching victories last weekend over a pair of fellow FCS teams.

Montana State beat Drake 45-7 in Bozeman, while Northern Colorado beat Houston Baptist 45-13 on the road Saturday.

Vigen, a North Dakota State graduate, coached previously as an assistant at NDSU and also at Wyoming, where he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

McCaffrey’s playing resume includes three Super Bowl championships but just two previous years as a coach, both as the head coach at Valor Christian High School in Colorado.

With many of Eastern Washington’s offensive starters already done for the day, coaches gave Dennis Merritt one more shot to earn his first 100-yard game.

Granting such opportunities is something Eagles coach Aaron Best said he saw his predecessor Beau Baldwin do, and so with Merritt at 94 yards, the senior running back re-entered the backfield late in the third quarter, with the 7th-ranked Eagles of the FCS leading Central Washington of Division II by 46 points.

“My coaches put me in and said, ‘you got one shot to get over 100,’” Merritt said. “I didn’t know how many I was at, and I said, ‘all right, this is it.’”

Merritt gained 26 yards on the carry, his second-longest of the game, and finished with a career-high 120 yards on 10 carries, leading a high-powered Eastern offense in a 63-14 victory over the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon at Roos Field.

“Those guys did a great job up front,” Merritt said of the offensive linemen. “The run reads were very simple for me; I was on the same track on every single run. Everything felt like it was gonna bust through.”

Many times, he and his teammates did: The Eagles ran 48 times for 323 yards – their most since a 378-yard effort against Portland State in 2018 – and four touchdowns. Freshman Justice Jackson carried 11 times for 100 yards and a score; sophomore Micah Smith added 44 yards on 10 carries.

The balance was by design, as the Eagles rotated in running backs versus an overmatched Wildcats defense, against which senior quarterback Eric Barriere completed 20 of 31 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns.

But the star of the day was Merritt, a 2015 high school graduate who is now in his seventh year at Eastern, having been granted extra seasons due to an injury in 2019 and a pandemic in 2020.

“Whether it’s in practice or games, (Merritt) knows one speed,” Best said. “It’s always good to have to bring him back instead of revving him up. He played really well, and he’s the guy we’re gonna lean on right now without Tamarick (Pierce) in the mix, being the senior, having the most experience in that (running back) room.”

Merritt now has 1,039 yards in his career at Eastern on 171 carries, good for an average of 6.1 yards per rush. He also has 329 more yards on 23 career receptions.

“I think we were just executing at a high level,” Merritt said. “Everybody knows what the standard here is offensively for Eastern, and I think we did a pretty good job today.”

Barriere opened the scoring with a six-yard rushing score, followed immediately by a two-yard sneak on the point after by Gunner Talkington, to give the Eagles an 8-0 lead on their opening drive. Central immediately answered with a touchdown, but from then on the Eagles dominated.

Junior receiver Andrew Boston scored on a 16-yard end-around run, Seth Harrison kicked a 35-yard field goal, and then Merritt scored twice in the second quarter as Eastern opened up a 32-7 lead.

On the Wildcats’ drive that followed, Eagles end Mitchell Johnson pressured quarterback JJ Lemming, who threw behind his receiver and right to Ty Graham. The senior linebacker ran 43 yards the other way, untouched, for his first touchdown with the Eagles.

It mirrored a play last spring, when Graham applied the pressure that led to a Johnson pick-six against Cal Poly.

“We feed off the momentum of our offense, which is good,” said junior linebacker Cale Lindsay, who started alongside Graham in place of senior Jack Sendelbach. “With our defense, we’re always ready to go out there because our offense can score in a couple seconds.

I think just having that edge, or that fire always built up that whole time on the sidelines, is good.”

On Eastern’s next offensive possession after Graham’s touchdown, Freddie Roberson took a screen pass 16 yards to the goalline but lost control of the football. Senior center Conner Crist fell on the ball in the end zone and got credit for the touchdown, extending the Eagles lead to 46-7.

“I think that’s the second time ever in the history since I’ve been here since 1996 that an offensive lineman scored a touchdown,” Best said. “It’s an offensive lineman’s dream. … Him traveling that far, into the end zone off a tunnel screen to the boundary, just speaks volumes of how they’re coached.”

Eastern set a program record with 46 points before halftime, and the Eagles’ 63 points were the 11th most they had ever scored in a single game. They extended their home winning streak to 18 games.

Next Saturday the Eagles play at Western Illinois to wrap up their non-conference schedule.

One week after upsetting a higher-level opponent, the Eastern Washington football team will try to avoid falling victim to a lower-level opponent at 1 p.m. Saturday when it hosts Division II Central Washington at Roos Field in Cheney.

Historically, the two programs have been linked both by their frequent matchups and also their coaching connections: former Eastern coach Beau Baldwin was once the head coach at Central, and current Eagles offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker went 38-16 as Central’s head coach from 2014 to 2018, to name just two such ties.

The programs last played each other in 2018, when Eastern handed the Wildcats a 58-13 defeat. Overall, Eastern leads the all-time series 35-30-4, including victories in nine of their last 10 matchups.

But Central is certainly not a team the Eagles say they are taking lightly.

“They’re gonna come in swinging,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said. “They’re gonna show up to win the game.”

So, too, will the seventh-ranked Eagles (1-0), who beat UNLV 35-33 in double overtime on Sept. 2 for the program’s 11th victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision school.

Central (1-0), which plays in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, defeated fellow D-II program Eastern New Mexico 66-24 on Saturday. Redshirt sophomore quarterback JJ Lemming was efficient, completing 14 of 22 attempts for 322 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was his first collegiate start.

Best said Lemming was someone the Eagles recruited out of Steilacoom High School, near Tacoma, and he has been impressed with the sophomore.

“He’s more than capable,” Best said. “He’s not a fearful quarterback. … He is not an average quarterback.”

Eastern Washington will look to pressure Lemming a game after the Eagles sacked UNLV quarterbacks four times.

“(We have to) Just do what we did to UNLV: put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and trust our brothers behind us,” said sophomore tackle Joshua Jerome, who had two of those sacks. “Trust the safeties in coverage; trust the corners that they’re gonna be in coverage.”

Last week the Eagles played in front of nearly 22,000 fans in Las Vegas. For the first time since the 2019 season, the Eagles will be back at Roos Field – where they have won 17 games in a row – with the stadium allowed back at full capacity.

“It’s not difficult, but it’s just different with no fans or anything,” said freshman receiver Efton Chism III. “But it’ll definitely be cool to get my parents here this year. … It’ll be pretty awesome to play in front of a crowd.”

Two former Palouse quarterbacks who spent time in the same locker room last season in Jacksonville have found new NFL homes.

Gardner Minshew, the former graduate transfer who finished his career at Washington State and Jake Luton, a one-time Idaho backup who found success at Oregon State, have both moved on from the Jaguars, who prepare to begin a new regime under first-year coach Urban Meyer and No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence.

Minshew, now a Philadelphia Eagle, and Luton, the newest practice squad quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, aren’t the only NFL players with Palouse/Eastern Washington ties who’ve found new situations in the offseason. Below, we take a look at the ex-WSU, Idaho and Eastern Washington standouts who recently made 53-man rosters or NFL practice squads, as well as those looking to get back into the league as free agents.

Washington State

Gardner Minshew, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Though Minshew wasn’t traded by the Jaguars until late August, his run in Jacksonville unofficially ended on April 29, the day the franchise drafted Lawrence. Minshew played 23 games in Jacksonville over two seasons, but it’s unclear when his next NFL snaps will come. The former Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year is currently listed as Philadelphia’s third-string QB behind starter Jalen Hurts and backup Joe Flacco.

Andre Dillard, LT, Philadelphia Eagles: Minshew’s move to Philadelphia reunites with him the man who protected his blind side during WSU’s storied 2018 football season. But Minshew and Dillard may not be teammates for long. The left tackle sat out last season with a bicep injury and has dealt with a knee injury in preseason camp. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, teams have reached out to the Eagles regarding Dillard’s availability.

Jalen Thompson, S, Arizona Cardinals: Drafted two years ago in the NFL’s Supplemental Draft, Thompson was never in danger of losing his spot on the 53-man roster even after suffering an ankle injury that kept him out of 11 games last season. He returns in 2021 to team up with former Apple Cup rival and fifth-year pro Budda Baker in Arizona’a secondary.

Frankie Luvu, LB, Carolina Panthers: In 40 career NFL games, the former WSU “Rush” linebacker has registered 48 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss and five sacks. Luvu was productive in Carolina’s three preseason games, recording one sack, two TFL, six tackles and one pass defended, and is listed as a backup rush outside linebacker on the team’s depth chart.

Dezmon Patmon, WR, Indianapolis Colts: The Colts appear to have a loaded receivers room in 2021, so Patmon snagging one of the final 53-man roster spots demonstrates the growth the big outside receiver has made since being drafted in 2020. A big preseason didn’t hurt Patmon’s case, either. In three games, he caught 11 passes for 173 yards, leading the Colts in yards in two of those games.

River Cracraft, WR, San Francisco 49ers: The former WSU slot was released by San Francisco but retained on the practice squad. In his first season with the 49ers, he was activated to the 53-man roster due to a slew of WR injuries, catching six passes for 41 yards.

Easop Winston Jr., WR, New Orleans Saints: One year after being waived by the Los Angeles Rams, who took Winston Jr. on as an undrafted free agent, the former WSU “Z” receiver got another crack the NFL. Winston Jr., who arguably made the catch of preseason camp for New Orleans, didn’t make the 53-man roster but was signed to the practice squad.

Daniel Ekuale, DT, New England Patriots: Ekuale has bounced around quite a bit since his first NFL season in 2018. After a two-year stint in Cleveland and a one-year stint in Jacksonville, he joins New England as a member of the practice squad.

Idaho

Kaden Elliss, LB, New Orleans Saints: Three years after he was the Saints’ last pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Elliss has outperformed expectations in every regard especially after recovering from a knee injury that diminished his playing time in 2019. Elliss not only remains a roster lock, but is a projected starter at SAM linebacker after playing all 15 games last season.

Jake Luton, QB, Seattle Seahawks: Playing for his hometown team probably seemed like a long shot when Luton was at Marysville Pilchuck running the run-heavy Wing-T offense while holding just one college offer, from Idaho. Now, the well-journeyed QB who spent time at Ventura College and Oregon State before being drafted by Jacksonville will play less than an hour from home, alongside Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and other players he grew up watching.

Benson Mayowa, DE, Seattle Seahawks: Mayowa is now eight years removed from entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent and coming off arguably his most impressive statistical season. In 2020, the former Vandal defensive started in a career-high nine games, recording six sacks, three passes defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Jesse Davis, OG, Miami Dolphins: At 29 years old, Davis is the longest-tenured offensive lineman on Miami’s roster and was appointed as one of the team’s captains in 2020. He’s shown versatility as an NFL O-lineman and though he started in 15 games last season, Davis never started more than six at the same position, making six starts at right guard, five at right tackle and four at left tackle.

Elijhaa Penny, RB, New York Giants: Unlike many NFL teams, the Giants opted to carry two fullbacks on their 53-man roster, bringing back Penny after the former Idaho running back rushed six times for 53 yards – an average of 8.5 yards per carry. For his career, Penny has rushed 59 times for 203 yards with two touchdowns.

Jeff Cotton, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars: The former Idaho receiver didn’t have much of an impact in Jacksonville’s first preseason game, but he was superb in the final two, earning a practice squad spot after catching seven passes for 106 yards and a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys.

Eastern Washington

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams: One year after crossing the 1,000-yard barrier, Kupp nearly made it there again in 2020, catching 92 passes for 974 yards and three touchdowns. There’s a good chance Kupp will play a more prominent role in Los Angeles’ passing game, especially if Matthew Stafford can offer the team more consistency and production from the QB position.

Kendrick Bourne, WR, New England Patriots: The offseason came with a change of scenery for the former EWU receiver, who was signed by the Patriots to a three-year, $22.5 million deal after spending his first four NFL seasons with San Francisco. According to a projected depth chart released by the team, Bourne is a second-string receiver behind Jakobi Meyers.

Samson Ebukam, LB, San Francisco 49ers: Ebukam’s run with the Rams ended, but the former EWU linebacker didn’t go far. After four years in Los Angeles, Ebukam will stay in the NFC West and projects as a second-string rush end behind 49ers standout Nick Bosa. In 64 games with the Rams, he totaled 139 tackles with 14 sacks, six passes defended and six forced fumbles.

Taiwan Jones, RB, Buffalo Bills: The veteran running back/return specialist comes back for his 11th NFL season after appearing in 13 games last season. Though Jones didn’t log a carry last season, he made a key fumble recovery on a punt return in Buffalo’s 38-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game.

Nsimba Webster, WR, Chicago Bears: It’s unclear what type of role Webster will play for Chicago’s offense after moving to the NFC North in the offseason, but he should be involved in special teams situations after finishing fourth in the NFL last year with his 41 kick and punt returns. Those 41 returns went for a total of 532 yards.

Free agents to keep an eye on: Anthony Gordon, QB (WSU); Hercules Mata’afa, DE (WSU); Oscar Draguicevich III, P (WSU); Joe Dahl, OL (WSU/University High); Christian Elliss, LB (Idaho); Jake Rodgers, OT (EWU); Evan Weaver, LB (Gonzaga Prep); Brett Rypien, QB (Shadle Park).

What Eastern Washington and UC Davis started a week ago carried into an excellent long weekend for the Big Sky Conference’s football teams.

Montana’s 13-7 upset of the 20th-ranked Washington Huskies certainly was the biggest victory for the conference, though the rest of the Big Sky acquitted itself, even in a few of its members’ defeats.

Montana State, for example, under first-year coach Brent Vigen, led Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference in the final three minutes before the Cowboys took back the lead with 47 seconds to go, claiming a 19-16 victory.

Portland State, which will play in Pullman on Saturday, put up 477 yards on Hawaii in a 49-35 loss to the Warriors.

“The Big Sky started getting pretty darn good in the mid-2010s,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said Tuesday, “but regardless of (last) weekend, I believe this is the best Big Sky Conference top to bottom I’ve ever been associated with. That’s not because we happen to be in the moment. That’s because it’s real.”

Best has coached in the conference for two decades, and after its 35-33 victory at UNLV, Eastern Washington climbed to No. 7 in the latest STATS FCS poll. Weber State is 11th, Montana State is 12th, UC Davis is 14th after its victory over Tulsa, and Montana is above them all at No. 4, the recipient of four first-place votes.

For the Grizzlies, the victory is a culmination – and validation – of improvement for the program, which is entering its third full season of Bobby Hauck’s second stint with the team. Hauck led the Grizzlies to five seasons of 11 or more victories – and seven Big Sky titles – as their head coach from 2003 to 2009, when he left to become UNLV’s head coach.

From 2010 to 2017, the Grizzlies appeared in the playoffs three times.

“I think our guys believe what we’re telling them, but tangible evidence that that is the way it is, is probably really productive,” Hauck said earlier this week of the victory over the Huskies. “So yeah, it’s great to go get that win. I don’t think we had doubt before that game. We played pretty well this spring and the 2019 season was good, but I didn’t think there were doubters going into the game. There certainly (aren’t) now.”

Montana held Washington to 65 rushing yards on 27 attempts, and after a touchdown in the first five minutes, the Huskies didn’t score. Only four other times since the start of the 2018 season have the Huskies ran for such a low yardage total.

“Obviously we’re real pleased with the win over Washington. It’s a huge, huge win,” Hauck said. “It’s recognized nationally as a huge, huge win, so I’m very pleased for Montana. It’s good in a lot of ways.”

The three FBS victories in one week were the most ever for the Big Sky, and no FCS league had recorded three in a week since the Colonial Athletic Association did in 2009, according to a Big Sky release.

There have only been five other times an FCS team beat a ranked FBS team since 1978, when the FCS was created (then as Division I-AA). Appalachian State’s 34-32 win over No. 5 Michigan marked the highest-ranked FBS team to lose such a game. Eastern Washington accomplished the feat in 2013 with its 49-46 victory at No. 25 Oregon State.

This weekend offers the conference four more opportunities to beat FBS teams. Portland State plays at Washington State, Idaho at Indiana, Cal Poly at Fresno State, and Idaho State at Nevada.

Montana hosts Western Illinois on Saturday; one week later, on Sept. 18, Eastern Washington will play at Western Illinois in Macomb.

Baldwin gets first Poly victory

It took more than a year, but Beau Baldwin, the former Eastern Washington and Central Washington coach, got his first win at Cal Poly last weekend, 28-17 over San Diego.

As was so often the case at Eastern, Baldwin’s Mustangs won through the air: Redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Brasch completed 23 of 38 attempts for 316 yards and two touchdowns. Brasch spent the previous two seasons with Cal, where Baldwin was previously the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Baldwin was named Cal Poly’s head coach in December 2019, but the Mustangs played just three games in the 2020-21 season, including a 62-10 loss at Eastern Washington.

Airing it out

Four quarterbacks from the Big Sky rank among the top 16 nationally in passing yards after their opening-weekend performances.

Davis Alexander (Portland State) ranks fourth in the FCS with 400 yards after a 23-for-47 performance. Eastern’s Eric Barriere is third with 374 yards on 29-of-39 attempts, a performance that earned him Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Brasch ranks 13th with 316 yards; Hunter Rodrigues (UC Davis) is 16th with 311 on 28 of 35 attempts.

But they are all topped by Ren Hefley, of Presbyterian, who leads the nation with 538 yards. The junior threw an FCS-record 10 touchdown passes against NAIA St. Andrews in an 84-43 victory.

While Eastern Washington has endured its share of blowout losses to Football Championship Subdivision teams, it’s given a number of those teams trouble.

On 11 occasions now, including a 35-33 double-overtime victory at UNLV on Thursday, the Eagles have defeated an FBS team. Another 27 times, they’ve lost, often handily (let’s not dwell on that 84-21 loss at No. 10 Houston in 1990).

If the UNLV Rebels prove to be the bottom dwellers of the Mountain West Conference, the Eagles’ victory at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas may lose some of its luster in an all-time sense: Beating Idaho 20-3 in 2012, for example, perhaps was not so stunning given the Vandals only won one game that year, whereas the Eagles finished 11-3.

But the in-the-moment thrill still has to count for something.

Here’s a look back at five of those FCS-over-FBS upsets in Eagles’ history.

No. 5: Eastern Washington 20, Long Beach State 17

Oct. 29, 1983, at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane

Technically this one doesn’t fit the category perfectly, as the Eagles were still a Division II independent team. But Long Beach State that year was a better-than-average Pacific Coast Athletic Association team, finishing 8-4 with victories over Big Eight school Kansas State and Hawaii out of the Western Athletic Conference.

University High School graduate Rob James threw a 50-yard touchdown to Craig Richardson to open the scoring for Eastern. In the fourth quarter, after Long Beach tied the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion, Dave Marriott kicked the game-winning 34-yard field goal to give the Eagles the 20-17 victory.

It was the second of five straight wins for the Dick Zornes-coached Eagles, who started that season 0-5 but finished 5-5. It was the first victory over a Division I-A team in program history.

No. 4: Eastern Washington 24, Idaho 21

Nov. 1, 1997, at Joe Albi Stadium

Six times in their history the Eagles faced the Vandals while Idaho was playing in the FBS, and three times Eastern emerged with a victory. This was the first and marked the program’s first game at Joe Albi since 1990.

Behind by four points in the final minutes, quarterback Harry Leons led the Eagles on a 64-yard drive, capped by a Rex Prescott 3-yard touchdown run with 34 seconds left.

The victory ended a five-game losing streak to the Vandals, who had just moved up to the FBS a year before, playing in the Big West Conference.

Eastern won the Big Sky and hosted three Division I-AA playoff games at Joe Albi that season, losing in the semifinals to Youngstown State.

No. 3: Eastern Washington 35, UNLV 33 (2 OT)

Sept. 2, 2021, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas

Look no farther than the starting quarterbacks in this game, and it’s easy to see how the Eagles managed to win last week.

Eric Barriere, the Walton Payton Award runner-up last year, played excellent football overall, completing 29 of 39 pass attempts for 374 yards and three touchdowns, including two in overtime.

Justin Rogers, for UNLV, was just 7 of 11 for 23 yards before Doug Brumfield replaced him during the third quarter. Brumfield led the Rebels back into a tie game, but if the Eagles had been able to make just one of three missed field-goal attempts, there would have been no dramatic overtime.

At the same time, without Barriere’s overtime poise, the Eagles would be facing the what-might-have-beens.

No. 2: Eastern Washington 49, Oregon State 46

August 31, 2013, at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Oregon

As the Eagles’ only victory over a ranked FBS opponent – the Beavers were 25th – this stands as a brilliant upset on paper. But as the season progressed it became clear that the Eagles were a force that season, sweeping the Big Sky regular season and winning a pair of playoff games, whereas the Beavers finished 4-5 in the Pac-12 and 7-6 overall.

“In fact,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said at the time, three years after winning an FCS national title, “some might argue that a win like this can draw more attention to your program than a national title.”

Quarterback Vernon Adams accounted for 518 total yards, including a game-winning touchdown run with 23 seconds left.

Two years later, Adams returned to Reser Stadium as a member of the Oregon Ducks and won again, 52-42.

No. 1: Eastern Washington 45, Washington State 42

Sept. 3, 2016, at Martin Stadium in Pullman

Beau Baldwin’s final season coaching the Eagles began with a shootout victory over the Air Raiding Cougars.

Arguably, it was Baldwin’s best team in Cheney: The Eagles only lost twice all year, an overtime game at North Dakota State a week later, and the semifinal loss to Youngstown State in the playoffs.

Against the Cougars, Gage Gubrud completed all but six of his 40 attempts for 474 yards – the fourth-highest single-game total in his career – and five touchdowns. He ran for another 77 yards and a touchdown. Cooper Kupp was everywhere, catching 12 passes for 206

yards and three scores.

Notably, too, the victory came against one of Mike Leach’s better Washington State teams: The Cougars finished 7-2 in the Pac-12 that year and 8-5 overall.

LAS VEGAS — Former Eastern Washington defensive back Robert Puller was ready to join Eagle Nation in Gainesville for the 2020 season opener.

The pandemic ruined those plans.

Puller, known to fans and teammates as “Butter” while playing for the Eagles from 1987-91, wasn’t about to miss a chance to watch Thursday’s season-opener less than one mile from the famed Las Vegas Strip.

“The excitement for us to play UNLV, in the Raiders stadium, opening game on a Thursday night to kick off college football — I couldn’t be more excited,” Puller said from the Twitch Lounge inside Allegiant Stadium. “Just to be here and be excited about the Eagle Nation and the things that we do, hopefully we come up with a W.”

They did, as the Eagles (1-0) outlasted UNLV in an exhilarating 35-33 double-overtime win.

Shaking off a sluggish start, Eastern Washington built a two-touchdown lead, pulling ahead 20-6 before the Rebels (0-1) used a late rally to tie the game.

But soaking up the atmosphere with the bright lights of The Strip shining through the lanai doors at the north end of the 61,000-seat, $2 billion venue, quarterback Eric Barriere threw touchdown passes on the first play of both overtimes, with a two-point conversion in the second extra frame providing the final margin.

“This is my first time really being inside an NFL stadium, so just being in this atmosphere, just looking up and just seeing the billboards definitely gets your blood flowing,” Barriere said. “It definitely makes the excitement a lot better.”

Linebacker Ty Graham credited the team’s Spring season for the mettle it showed late in the game and being able to withstand UNLV’s furious comeback.

“We had to learn how to recuperate everything — bodies, minds — and get ready for that quick turnaround in a short three months,” Graham said. “Leading up to the game, you didn’t see a lot of drop off. Today really showed. We showed a lot of good talent and a lot of hard work in general. We were able to bond as a brotherhood in the Spring and I really think that carried over today.”

Barriere, who completed 29 of 39 pass attempts for 374 yards and three touchdowns, said the excitement began when the Eagles first learned they’d get a chance to play inside Allegiant Stadium, also home of the Las Vegas Raiders. But it wasn’t the only reason energy was flowing through the locker room.

“We knew this was a chance to let the world know Eastern Washington is a really good program and we can compete with the FBS teams,” Barriere said.

Since 2008, the Eagles have traveled 12 times for non-conference games against FBS schools, mostly staying in the Pacific Northwest to face in-state rivals Washington and Washington State, three times each. The furthest the Eagles have gone is Lubbock, Texas to face Texas Tech, in 2008 and 2017. They played in Reno against Nevada in 2010. They also played at Oregon, Oregon State and Cal along the way.

Las Vegas was a much different scene and scattered throughout the announced gathering of 21,970 fans was a strong representation of the Eagle Nation Puller spoke about.

Among the crowd was Shawn Taylor, father of senior All-American offensive lineman Tristen Taylor, proudly wearing a No. 65 jersey with “EWU DAD” plastered across the back. Taylor, who is from Northern California, said he attends all the season openers and has tried to attend every game during his son’s career. And while he’s been to Las Vegas a number of times, this trip was a no-brainer considering the fact UNLV offered his son a scholarship five years ago.

He’s also confident it won’t be the last time he sees his son step foot on an NFL field.

“I believe in him. He’s my son and I believe in him,” Taylor said. “And I think if he gets a chance he’s gonna do really good.”

EWU tennis player Zoey Nelson happened to be in Las Vegas with her boyfriend, Kale Reichersamer, and didn’t realize the Eagles were playing UNLV until after they arrived.

“We had just kind of come here on a whim and realized, ‘Hey, Eastern is playing,’” said Nelson, a senior who was named to the Spring Big Sky All-Academic team. “The first thing we did when we got here is bought tickets. We were like let’s go, we’re in it.”

The Eagles open the home portion of their schedule on Sept. 11 against Central Washington.

W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez

The celebration came later, perhaps, than the Eastern Washington Eagles would have liked.

But eventually — after Tre Weed and Ely Doyle’s victory-sealing tackle inside the 1-yard line — the celebration did come.

Senior Eric Barriere threw touchdown passes in both the first and second overtime frames, Talolo Limu-Jones caught a tipped pass to secure the difference-making two-point conversion, and the Eagles (1-0) scored the second FCS-over-FBS upset of the college football season, 35-33 at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium over UNLV (0-1).

“We left a lot of points on the board,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said in his postgame radio interview. “We found a way to win with about three inches to spare.”

The victory certainly could have been easier for the Eagles.

In the closing seconds of regulation, Eastern set up for a 32-yard field goal that could have ended the game. But sophomore kicker Seth Harrison pulled it wide left. It was his third miss of the game.

Meanwhile, field goals were the UNLV Rebels’ only successful means of scoring points for nearly the whole of regulation: Daniel Gutierrez hit from 48, 22, 47 and then 51 as his team’s offense was repeatedly stymied by the Eagles’ defense.

But after starting quarterback Justin Rogers proved ineffective, Doug Brumfield entered in relief midway through the third quarter, and soon after the game turned for the Rebels.

After Gutierrez’s fourth kick got the Rebels back within eight points, 20-12, Cage Schenk fumbled under the crush of the Rebels’ coverage team, and one play later Charles Williams scored a 16-yard touchdown that drew UNLV within two. They closed the gap entirely with a successful two-point conversion.

Eastern Washington punted after its next drive, and UNLV promptly reached midfield. But then Brumfield threw high, his receiver could only tip the pass, and Weed was waiting eight yards behind for an interception.

Four plays into the next drive and facing 2nd-and-22, Barriere heaved a pass over four members of the UNLV secondary to a waiting Andrew Boston for a 46-yard gain with 1:34 left on the clock, and from there the Eagles drained the clock over five running plays and set up Harrison’s kick.

But the missed kick certainly didn’t throw off Barriere.

In overtime, the Eagles’ quarterback only threw two passes — neither of them to his top receiving targets — and both went for touchdowns near the corner of the end zone. Junior Dylan Ingram caught the first after UNLV had taken a 27-20 lead.

Freshman Blake Gobel caught the second, reaching the corner of the end zone just before he went out of bounds, giving the Eagles a 33-27 edge.

“They do a lot of dirty work,” Best said of the two tight ends, “so when they get a chance to (catch) balls in the end zone, more power to them.”

Then came Limu-Jones’ tip-drill catch in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion, followed on the next possession by the Eagles’ defensive stand on the Rebels’ own conversion attempt.

“It feels awesome,” defensive tackle Joshua Jerome said during a postgame radio interview. “Especially when you do it with diversity like that.”

Barriere, who also threw two interceptions, completed 29 of 39 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns, including the two in overtime. Freshman Efton Chism III caught the first, which came during a third-quarter surge from the Eagles that helped them erase a 6-3 halftime deficit and build, instead, a 20-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

The victory for Eastern was its first over an FBS team since a 45-42 win at Washington State in 2016. It improved the program’s record in such games to 11-27.

There were 10 FBS-FCS matchups on Thursday. Eastern Washington and fellow Big Sky team UC Davis, which beat Tulsa 19-17, were the only two FCS teams to complete the upsets.

Boston led the Eagles with 106 receiving yards on six catches, and Limu-Jones added 65 yards on his six receptions. Senior Dennis Merritt led Eastern’s ground game with 58 of its 97 rushing yards.

Defensively, senior Ty Graham led the Eagles with 13 tackles including three behind the line of scrimmage. The sophomore Jerome led the team’s defensive linemen with seven tackles, including a strip sack after which Jerome also recovered the fumble.

Next, Eastern Washington hosts Division II Central Washington on Sept. 11 in the Eagles’ home opener at Roos Field.

Even championship teams eventually need to retool.

The sports crew at The Spokesman-Review – hit hard by offseason defections – is no different.

Just months after winning the newspaper’s first Grand Slam in the annual Associated Press Sports Editors’ national contest (Top-10 finishes in daily print, Sunday print, special sections and website), we’ve had to replace nearly a third of our staff.

So as we embark on a new football season, we’re having to address the same types of concerns as the teams we write about.

– Can talent overcome a lack of experience?

– Will the young players be able to handle game-night pressure?

– Can the embattled head coach make it through another season?

It’s no different in Pullman, where coach Nick Rolovich’s Washington State Cougars went down to the wire trying to settle on a starting quarterback; or in Cheney, where Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best is trying to find the right mix to improve his team’s run defense from a year ago; or even out in Liberty Lake, where the new Ridgeline High School is just trying to field a team for the first time.

Making the pieces fit is always hard. But trying to do it during these unprecedented times can be overwhelming.

It’s why we settled on a theme of “Solving the Puzzle” for our annual football section, which you’ll find in Thursday’s print newspaper and here. We’ve even created some fun crossword puzzles for the teams we cover. We’ll provide the clues, but you’ll have to come up with the solutions.

As you’ll read in Thursday’s previews, teams at all levels are seeking the right answers that might lead to big successes.

Our team is no different. While it’s hard to say goodbye to old friends, it’s also exciting to welcome in new faces.

You’ve probably noticed a new byline on WSU stories. Colton Clark has replaced Theo Lawson as our primary reporter covering the Cougars. A graduate of the University of Idaho who lives in Pullman, Clark will be able to supply on-the-spot coverage when news breaks on the Palouse.

We’ll still lean heavily on Lawson’s deep insight and knowledge of WSU athletics from time to time, and he’ll often team with Clark to provide unmatched coverage on game nights.

As readership trends show, we simply can’t write enough about the Cougars.

Or Gonzaga men’s basketball.

It’s been outrageous to expect just one full-time reporter to cover a national championship contender year in and year out (as Jim Meehan has magnificently done – and has the gray hair to prove it.) That’s why Lawson is sliding over to GU basketball this season alongside Meehan.

They’ll be our version of Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme – mustache-less, unfortunately.

And we haven’t even mentioned columnist John Blanchette, fresh off another award-winning season. Or contributors Vince Grippi and Justin Reed. Or our fantastic photo staff.

Talk about a dream team.

Meantime, our coverage of other fall sports won’t miss a beat. Dan Thompson brings his storytelling skills to Eastern Washington; the steady Peter Harriman returns to cover Idaho; And newcomer Adam Chambers takes over Whitworth.

Dave Nichols will continue to anchor our high school coverage, backed by a bevy of correspondents.

Kevin Dudley returns when the Spokane Chiefs take the ice, and Jim Allen is back to cover the Gonzaga women’s basketball team.

Two new faces – Connor Vanderweyst and Taylor Newquist – have taken the reins of our design and website. Veteran editors Chris Derrick and Gene Warnick provide steady leadership and stellar editing. Jason Shoot and Angela Schneider offer versatility as both writers and editors.

Sadly, there is one hole on our staff that we’ll never be able to fill.

In early August, Joe Palmquist decided to retire. He spent the past five years as managing editor after serving the previous 14 as sports editor.

Joe was smart, efficient and creative as sports editor, with some of this paper’s best work done under his watch.

As a mentor and friend, he’s also been one-of-a-kind, offering guidance and support during some of the most stressful times in my life – both professionally and personally.

I’ll miss wandering into his office every day to talk life and sports, everything from Mike Leach, to standup comedy, to my dating misadventures, to how he’ll spend retirement.

With plenty of free time now, he ought to be able to find a few extra hours to come up with solutions to the football crossword puzzles in our print edition.

And once he’s finished with those?

Well, he’ll hopefully keep his phone nearby, because it’s a safe bet I’ll be calling to ask for a few more answers.

Eric Barriere does not like finishing second.

Not as a team. Not as an individual.

In that sense, the decision of whether to return to Eastern Washington for this season – after the Eagles lost in the FCS playoffs last spring – wasn’t a difficult one.

He wants to win a championship. And he wants to do it at Eastern.

“(I’m) just going out there knowing it’s my last opportunity to win a championship and playing the game of college football, because after this season nothing is guaranteed,” Barriere said in mid-August. “So really (I’m) just trying to make the most of this season and trying honestly to win a championship.”

He also doesn’t want to finish second again for a major award, as he did for the Walter Payton Award last spring, an honor given instead to Southern Louisiana quarterback Cole Kelley as the FCS’s top offensive player.

“Just hearing that all the work that I put in throughout the season, and I actually came up short on a major award is kind of crushing,” Barriere said. “That just motivated me to come back and be even better. Obviously people thought that I didn’t deserve it for a reason, so that’s pushed me more.”

The redshirt senior enters this season with 8,739 passing yards in 37 games at Eastern, holding the starting job since taking over for injured Gage Gubrud halfway through the 2018 season. That’s the highest total among active players in the FCS, and fifth on the Eagles’ all-time career list. He needs 3,877 passing yards to match Matt Nichols’ record.

That would be slightly more than the 3,712 yards Barriere threw for in 2019. But if this fall he meets his per-game average from the spring, 348.4 yards, he would be on the cusp of that record heading into any potential playoff games.

“Eric, he’s already shown he’s the best QB in the country and in my opinion it’s not even close,” sophomore receiver Freddie Roberson said after the first preseason scrimmage. “Having him back there, that takes a lot of stress off of us, because with him and his legs, he can do a lot with the ball in his hands.”

Barriere said at the Big Sky kickoff weekend in July that he considered transferring but never actually entered the transfer portal. He said he wanted to finish out his career where he began it, at Eastern, and that being loyal was important to him.

He has already been named the Big Sky Conference’s preseason offensive player of the year, and it seems every week his name is added to another award’s watch list.

Even for the Eagles’ defensive players, having Barriere around is both an encouragement and an extra motivator heading into this season.

“When you’ve got E (Barriere) back there, anything is possible, to be honest,” senior defensive back Calin Criner said. “I don’t wanna say it’s a now or never mentality, but this (year) is what we’re focused on.”

So, too, it seems, is their starting quarterback.

Despite all the protocols and hurdles required to play a spring season, Eastern Washington’s football players said it was worth it.

It was better than spring practices. And it was a great tune-up for the fall season, which begins with a game against Football Bowl Subdivision opponent UNLV.

“With the COVID year, and just having a lot of people come back, (those seven) games,” sophomore cornerback Tre Weed said, “it was just like a preseason for this season.”

Through that lens, the Eagles see a year with potential not just to win the Big Sky but to also a national championship, something they last did in 2010.

They have arguably the best player at the most important position in the game with senior Eric Barriere at quarterback. Whether they have the defense to support him remains perhaps the biggest question heading into the season.

Key pieces

Eric Barriere, QB: The scrambler extraordinaire did a lot less scrambling last spring, when he averaged 20.6 rushing yards per game, less than half of the 46.5 he averaged in 2019. But he also threw for 39 more yards per game last season than the one previous, and he remains a dual threat for opposing defenses to stop.

Talolo Limu-Jones, WR: The senior finished fourth nationally last year in receiving yards per game (108.4) and was a first-team All-Big Sky selection. In a veteran group of receivers, Limu-Jones still stands out. He also recognizes his role as a leader on the team.

“Just to better the younger guys that are around me,” he said of his goals this season, “because whether I like it or not, they’re gonna follow what I do. I’mma lead whether I wanna lead or if I don’t wanna lead.”

Jusstis Warren, DE: Warren started the first game last spring but missed the rest of the season, and without him the Eagles struggled to consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks or stop the run effectively. Eastern had 13 total sacks and gave up the seventh-most rushing yards per game (195.7) among the eight teams that attempted a full, partial spring season.

Not that Warren necessarily would have compensated for that all by himself, but the University of Washington transfer will no doubt be counted on to improve the defense overall.

Jack Sendelbach, LB: With 39 games played in his five seasons at Eastern, Sendelbach played just three games last spring but certainly was a force in them. He had 33 tackles in those three games and will help lead a defense this year looking to improve its defense overall, particularly its tackling.

Getting healthy, too, would certainly help improve a defense that dealt with injuries at every level last season. Sendelbach’s return this season is emblematic of that, and the play of those who missed parts of the spring will be key for the Eagles.

Filling in the blanks

Running back: Without returning starter Tamarick Pierce for the time being, the Eagles will rely on senior Dennis Merritt and then a stable of unproven college running backs to help balance out the offense.

Merritt, who has 861 career rushing yards on just 143 attempts, is also a pass-catching threat out of the backfield and the likely starter. But throughout camp, coach Aaron Best praised the other backs, specifically true freshmen Tuna Altahir and Davante Smith, who led the team in rushing during two scrimmages.

Penalties: Eastern struggled with penalties last spring, when it averaged 6.2 per game for an average of 69.1 yards. Penalties were an issue in 2019 as well, when the Eagles racked up 940 penalty yards in 12 games, the highest total and average among the Big Sky’s 13 teams.

Best emphasized penalties during the team’s two scrimmages and was happier with their progress after the second from the first.

“They were less mental mistakes (in scrimmage No. 2), penalty-wise, and more physical,” he said. “We can live with the physical ones. Mental ones, the ones in your control, are the ones you wanna stay away from.”

Depth: Eastern returns starters at every position, something that Best noted during preseason doesn’t necessarily equate to being better. But after the defense’s struggles late last season in stopping the run, the Eagles could surely use capable backups to cycle in as necessary.

Same on offense, where the Eagles were much healthier: Just six offensive linemen started games last spring, and the receiving corps largely remained on the field as well. If that changes, the Eagles’ younger players could get opportunities to solidify spots in 2022’s starting lineup.

Solving the puzzle

The Eagles’ nonconference schedule presents them with three opponents from different levels of football, and it’s feasible Eastern wins all of them. UNLV, though an FBS team, was 0-6 last spring, and the Eagles are a veteran FCS team with a history of playing well – if not often winning – in such matchups.

They then host Division II Central Washington, a talented program at its level, followed by a game at Western Illinois, which went 1-5 last spring in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and 1-11 the year before.

Then the Eagles will begin a Big Sky schedule that pits them against all their major rivals in Cheney and sends them on the road to play Southern Utah, Northern Colorado, UC Davis and Portland State on the road.

Third in the preseason conference polls, the Eagles are certainly expected to reach the FCS playoffs and to compete for a conference title. If they can win three of their four home games, against Montana, Idaho, Weber State and Montana State, then odds are good they’ll claim at least a share of a Big Sky championship.

If the running game provides balance to Eric Barriere and the receivers, and if the defense can improve to be middle of the pack against the run, the Eagles will be a formidable force come playoffs.

Call it whatever you want: a money game, an FBS game, a 22-more-scholarships game.

Eastern Washington is looking to beat UNLV on Thursday.

“It’s not just one that essentially we’re just getting money for this school,” EWU starting linebacker Ty Graham said. “We’re going (in order) to win, at the end of the day. So it’s exciting. It’s almost a standard for us to go into those games and really compete.”

Playing – and occasionally defeating – FBS opponents is a tradition for the Eagles, whose last victory in such a game came four tries ago, in 2016, when they beat Washington State 45-42 in Pullman. Four tries before that, they beat 25th-ranked Oregon State 49-46. The Eagles are 10-27 against Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

But in its past three tries – against Washington, Washington State and Texas Tech – Eastern has lost by an average margin of 38 points.

“We’ve always had confidence going into these games,” said Eagles coach Aaron Best, who was an assistant coach in 2016, the year before he took over as head coach.

“Our mentality is always the same going in: We’re destined to play better in these FBS games,” Best said. “I’ll say that.

“I think we have the crew to do that this year. We’re senior-laden with two senior classes. … But we need to certainly do more to create a better outcome in these games.”

UNLV, which plays in the Mountain West Conference, is coming off a 0-6 season last fall, its first season under coach Marcus Arroyo.

But Graham said the team wasn’t putting much stock in that record.

“When you see that they were winless, we don’t pay much mind to that,” the senior said. “They’re just as hungry and wanna play the game just as hard as we are. So you can’t really wrap your head around that statistic as much as you would want to. Even though it is there, we try not to think about it or talk about it.”

Running back Dennis Merritt agreed.

“We’re gonna go in there and prepare as if they went undefeated last season,” he said.

When the Eagles arrive on Wednesday, they will get their first taste of Allegiant Stadium, the site of Thursday’s contest and also the home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.

For Merritt and some others on the roster, this will be their first visit to an NFL stadium, let alone their first game played in one.

Best said he wants them to enjoy the opportunity.

It’s not a vacation, he said, but neither would he call it a business trip.

“We’re gonna play loose, we always have, and we’ll continue to do so,” Best said. “But they need to enjoy the moment, and they need to enjoy the surroundings, and the environment they’re gonna play in (Thursday) night.”

With the disruptions of COVID-19 and the coaching change the year before, getting a read on what the Rebels will do is difficult. As of Tuesday, they had yet to name a starting quarterback between sophomores Doug Brumfield or Justin Rogers.

Last year, Brumfield and Rogers each played in two of UNLV’s six games.

The Rebels’ offense ranked 10th among 12 Mountain West teams in yards per game, and their defense ranked 11th in the same category.

In contrast, the Eagles fielded the Big Sky’s best offense last spring and its third-best defense among the eight teams to play more than two games.

JESSE TINSLEY/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW Defensive back Demetrius Crosby celebrates an interception Wednesday during the Eastern Washington University football scrimmage at Roos Field in Cheney. The defense dominated, holding five quarterbacks to 18-of-47 passing for 209 yards.

With the No. 1 offense and defense mostly watching from the sidelines, the Eastern Washington football team’s backups got their chance to shine Wednesday in the team’s second scrimmage.

A few of them certainly made the most of the opportunity.

Redshirt freshman Cage Schenk intercepted one pass and broke up three others to lead a strong defensive effort for the Eagles, and true freshman running back Tuna Altahir carried nine times for 64 yards to lead a more balanced offensive attack, earning the praise of coach Aaron Best once again, just as he did last week.

“He’ll be a dude by the time his career is done,” Best said of Altahir.

Altahir and fellow true freshman Davante Smith (six carries, 48 yards) led the rushing attack for the Eagles, whose running back group has been thinned by injuries to senior Tamarick Pierce and sophomore Silas Perreiah. The group finished with 174 yards on 33 carries Wednesday.

“In a weird way because they were force-fed those reps, they’re better at these moments when they get on the stage in scrimmages,” Best said of the two freshmen. “They’ve been a great surprise this fall.”

While quarterback Eric Barriere and the Eagles’ receivers dominated the first preseason scrimmage last week, nearly all the starters on both sides sat out Wednesday’s event at Roos Field.

In their absence, the defense recorded five sacks, a safety, nine quarterback hurries and broke up seven passes while holding five Eagles quarterbacks to a combined 18 completions on 47 attempts for 209 yards.

“Anytime a scrimmage or a game is kinda choppy, it’s probably because the defense made more plays,” Best said.

Sophomore Demetrius Crosby Jr. recorded the scrimmage’s first interception when he dove to snag a tipped pass just before it hit the turf. Schenck’s interception came off sophomore Simon Burkett late in the scrimmage on the offense’s side of the field.

“I was just reading my drop, kinda looking at the sticks, and it was an end of game situation, so I just kept looking for work and got lucky,” Schenk said. “It fell right in my lap.”

Altahir, who played six games for Kamiakin High School last spring, said he remembered coming to Roos Field for camps during high school.

“Now to actually play for them,” he said, “it’s a great feeling.”

The speed of the game is faster, Altahir said, something that was evident without the starters out there.

“It’s a lot different for sure because those guys are all veterans, they know exactly what they’re doing,” Altahir said. “All of us are still kind of learning so it’s slower for us, but the tempo is still really fast. … You gotta pick on (the playbook) really fast.”

While the team won’t release a depth chart until next week, Best suggested that two quarterbacks, junior Gunner Talkington and the sophomore Burkett, had separated from the others during preseason camp.

Over the two scrimmages, Talkington went a combined 11 for 21 for 157 yards, while Burkett completed 9 of 19 attempts for 165 yards.

“I think we know who’s No. 1, and in all honesty, Gunner Talkington and Simon Burkett have had really, really good camps. It’s been nice to see,” Best said. “Gunner’s pretty much played steady for the better part of two, two-and-a-half years. Simon really took a big stride in this camp.”

With preseason camp now finished, the Eagles will turn their attention to their opening-day opponent, UNLV. They play in Las Vegas on Sept. 2.

“It’s time to get to the next chapter and phase of things,” Best said. “It’s one of those (heavy-sigh) moments: OK, now we’re done. Now we get a new challenge in front of us, and (next week) they actually do keep score.”

As good as Eastern Washington has been at identifying and developing talent at quarterback, it has been just about as good at maintaining the positions directly in front of those signal callers.

This season appears to be no different.

Led by All-America tackle Tristen Taylor, who needs to play nine games this season to become the Eagles’ all-time leader in games played, Eastern’s offensive line returns all of its five starters from last spring’s 5-2 squad that has aspirations this year of winning the program’s first national title since 2010.

Taylor’s college career, which began with a redshirt season in 2015, will come to an end after this season; like all college athletes, he was granted an extra year of eligibility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But coach Aaron Best, who has been around the program now for 25 years, said Taylor has made it clear he doesn’t want to be done playing football just yet.

“We know he has bigger goals,” Best said of Taylor. “His intentions are to play beyond college. He made that clear in the recruiting process, and along the way he’s got some guys on board a little bit more with the preparation, with the professional way to prepare, because it takes more than the minimum to be better at your craft, and he’s done a fabulous job up to this point.”

Taylor already has completed his degree in criminal justice, and Best joked that Taylor has been around so long he could have three degrees by now. (Taylor is working on a second in psychology.)

But the draw of chasing a national title, and also having a proper pro day with NFL scouts able to run him through in-person workouts, drew Taylor back, he said.

“I think we can be the No. 1 offense in the country with the whole line coming back,” Taylor said. “Last year I was the only returning starter so I was nervous about that, but now that everyone’s coming back, receivers, running backs, and all that, we’ll scare a lot of people.”

Part of “all that” is Eric Barriere, the latest in a line of Eagles’ quarterbacks to land on various watchlists for national awards.

But another reason is the Eagles’ penchant for identifying and developing offensive linemen.

In the last 20 seasons, the Eagles have had 18 first-team all-conference selections, and over that span nine players have been named a first-team All-America player. Taylor was selected as such last spring, joining names like Jake Rodgers (2014) and Michael Roos (2004), two future NFL players.

Best played offensive line at Eastern and was a first-team all-conference selection in 1999, and after that he joined Paul Wulff’s coaching staff, where he eventually became offensive line coach and later offensive coordinator before his promotion to head coach for the 2017 season.

He said they just coach the position differently than anyone else.

“There’s more asked of our guys. Our playbook is about 3 inches thicker than most,” Best said. “We spend a lot of individual time and not a ton of team time, so we individualize the techniques that we do in the situations and schemes that we present, and that started long before I became the offensive line coach here. That was the Mike Kramer, the Paul Wulff era. … We continue to build upon the legacy that was left.”

That legacy includes a few Eagles who predate Best, including NFL linemen Ed Simmons (who played at Eastern 1983 to 1986), Kevin Sargent (’88-’91) and Tom Ackerman (’92-’95).

Aside from Taylor, who has 47 career starts at Eastern, the Eagles also return left guard Wyatt Hansen, a freshman who started five games last spring, and senior center Conner Crist, who has nine starts for the Eagles. On the right side they return juniors Wyatt Musser (guard) and Matt Shook (tackle) who both started all seven games last spring.

Experience doesn’t necessarily mean a team or position will be better, Best pointed out, but it is still something the team relies on.

“I think you always have to lean on experience,” Best said. “I think the challenge is developing habits, because in any situation you’re always going to fall back to your habits, whether that’s (foot)ball or whether it’s (not). So we’ve got to create better habits in situations to fall back on the habits we expect.”

Starters to rest Wednesday

When the Eagles will hold their second and final scrimmage of the preseason on Wednesday, the starters won’t be playing in it.

Best said the No. 2’s will receive the majority of the reps during the 80- to 90-play event at Roos Field and that the focus will be on solidifying the backups at various positions.

Eastern Washington begins its season at FBS program UNLV on Sept. 2. It will be the first time meeting between the Eagles and the Rebels, who play in the Mountain West.

Eagles meet commissioner’s vaccine threshold

In late July, Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill set the goal that each of the league’s 13 football rosters reach a vaccination rate of at least 80% and added that teams would be required to forfeit if they couldn’t field a team.

On Monday, Best said Eastern Washington had cleared that percentage.

“We have hit the 80 percent (mark),” said Best, who earlier this month confirmed that he himself is vaccinated. “I’m not gonna get specific but we are north of 80 percent and have been for quite some time.”

If any defense knows the difficulties of containing Eric Barriere, it is the Eagles’ own group that knows it best.

Barriere’s excellence — and the strength of their entire receiving corps — was on display during Eastern Washington’s first official scrimmage of the preseason on Wednesday at Roos Field in Cheney.

“What we did well today was make (plays) more difficult for him,” junior defensive end Mitchell Johnson said. “Obviously if he was a normal quarterback, he probably wouldn’t have made as many plays as he did because we did get some good pressure on him, and we got

some good rushes from a lot of places.”

And anyhow, Johnson said, “Even when the defense gets their butts kicked, it’s still fun to see the offense do well.”

Barriere connected with fellow senior Talolo Limu-Jones for a 66-yard score on the first drive and followed with a 76-yard touchdown throw to sophomore Freddie Roberson the next time the first-team offense took the field.

“The way the defense was playing, we knew that they shoot bubble (screens) really hard, so we had it drawn up to where imma just fake, stop and go and just shoot the gap ’cause we know they like to get greedy on those bubbles,” Roberson said of his touchdown. “…

We just took advantage of that and shot the gap. And I just seen open space and decided to just run. Run and not look back.”

Barriere, who finished second in the Walter Payton Award voting last spring, finished 11 of 14 for 233 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s got the keys to the car, and he drove it pretty fast today,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said.

Yet that came against a defense that wasn’t entirely fully stocked, with a handful of regulars held out as a precaution, Best said.

Johnson, too, pointed out that the defense made strides. In a scrimmage of about 90 plays, the defense had six sacks and four pass breakups.

The first-team offense and defense started the scrimmage, and from there the second- and third-team units rotated in against their counterparts during the scrimmage. The offense scored six touchdowns and added four field goals.

Sophomore Simon Burkett completed 5 of 8 attempts for 105 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown to freshman tight end Messiah Jones late in the session. Junior Gunner Talkington, who backed up Barriere last year, completed 5 of 7 passes for 88 yards.

None of the Eagles’ five quarterbacks threw an interception.

Best said offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker was aggressive in his playcalling, and he praised the depth the team has at wide receiver. Fifteen different players caught passes for the Eagles, who racked up 24 catches for 465 yards.

Last season, Limu-Jones led the Big Sky in receptions and receiving yards per game. Roberson ranked in the top five of both categories as well; junior Andrew Boston was in the top 10.

“Our guys are gonna make plays when they’re there to make,” Best said, “but on the other side of things, we need to look at where we are personnel-wise schematically to make sure that we’re in good or better position to make plays in the end. But again, when you

have a talented receiving corps, guys who have a ton of experience, they’re gonna take advantage of a lot of defenses, not just our own.”

While Barriere and top receivers return from last spring’s 5-2 team, the Eagles’ running game will be without its top returner, senior Tamarick Pierce, who is out indefinitely with an injury. The redshirt senior ran for 462 yards on 86 carries last season.

With senior Dennis Merritt withheld from the scrimmage on Wednesday, true freshman Tuna Altahir led the Eagles in rushing with 13 carries for 77 yards and a touchdown. Davante Smith, another true freshman, added 49 yards on five carries.

“Both (Smith and Altahir) are gonna be really good at the end of their careers, and we’re better if they’re better sooner than later,” Best said.

Sophomore Isaiah Lewis led all returning running backs with 38 yards on four carries, including an eight-yard touchdown.

The intrasquad scrimmage was the first the Eagles have held so far this preseason, and they will hold another next Wednesday. Eastern opens its season at UNLV on Sept. 2.

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