For the first six plays of Eastern Washington’s rain-drenched spring scrimmage Saturday, its high-octane offense marched up Roos Field, a series of run-heavy calls reminiscent of the Eagles’ run to January’s FCS title game.
The next play was familiar, too.
Andy Katzenberger, a senior linebacker, sniffed out a short pass from quarterback Eric Barriere in the red zone, the first of four turnovers by the first- and second-team offenses in the 70-play tussle.
EWU’s short-handed defense – about a half-dozen starters sat out for various ailments – was back to its turnover-forcing ways.
Soggy elements and a slick football were partly to blame, but so was the palpable energy from a group that led the Big Sky Conference in scoring defense (16.9 ppg) last season.
Katzenberger gave his defense the edge over the first-team offense in round one, the first of three spring scrimmages.
“Besides giving up a couple of big plays, I thought we did pretty well,” Katzenberger said.
He was referring to senior running back Dennis Merritt, the speedster from Leavenworth, Washington.
Antoine Custer started at running back, but Merritt got the lion’s share of the reps, piling up 89 yards on eight carries and touchdowns of 22 and 36 yards against a defense mixed and matched with experienced veterans and unproven youngsters.
With the graduation of EWU’s leading rusher, Sam McPherson, and short-yardage back Tamarick Pierce recovering from a knee injury, Merritt, who totaled 436 total yards and four touchdowns last season, is on a mission to elevate his role.
“We just have a high standard in our running back group,” Merritt said. “We’re all expected to make plays, and every rep I take, I take it as if I’m the No. 1 guy.”
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Lewis paced the No. 2 offense with 32 yards on five carries, including a short touchdown run.
Barriere completed 8 of 14 passes for 128 yards, a touchdown pass to Anthony Stell Jr. and an interception. Second-string QB Gunner Talkington struggled through the air, completing 1 of 6 passes with two interceptions and a fumble.
Sophomore cornerback Keshaun King picked off Talkington early in the scrimmage before racing 22 yards to the end zone.
Redshirt freshman Simon Burkett, who primarily faced a reserve defense, completed 3 of 5 passes for 30 yards.
Head coach Aaron Best, who doubled as coach and referee in the scrimmage, praised the defense for its takeaways.
“The red jerseys (defense) were all over the field, making things happen,” Best said. “They got ran early, but they came back and made plays.
“I just think the inconsistency was a little bit much. We weren’t as explosive in the passing game like we’re accustomed to, but part of that is the elements and part of that is just being two weeks into this piece with new faces and tinkering with some stuff.”
Defensive linemen Mitch Johnson, Rudolph Mataia and Josh Jerome had two sacks apiece. Defensive back Dean Sise had a scrimmage-high seven tackles.