August 29, 2012 in Sports

Vandals expect tough challenge from EWU

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tyler Tjomsland photo

Quarterback Kyle Padron will make his Eastern Washington debut Thursday night at Idaho.
(Full-size photo)

MOSCOW, Idaho – The last time Eastern Washington toppled a team from the Football Bowl Subdivision – or Division I-A, as it was known then – was in 2003. And it came here, against Idaho in the Kibbie Dome.

The final score: 8-5.

The game was neither scintillating nor memorable, but it serves as a marker of sorts for both programs.

EWU has made five appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs since, claiming the national title in 2010. The Vandals pushed out coach Tom Cable a few months after the Eastern loss and hired three coaches over the next four years. After a brief spurt of success, they’re again searching for stable ground.

Nine years after their last meeting, Idaho hosts the Eagles tonight in the season opener for both teams. Kickoff at the Kibbie Dome is at 6, and the nonconference game will air on ESPN3.

For all its recent FCS success, Eastern has dropped 10 straight games to higher-division opponents. The last, a 30-27 loss at Washington to open 2011, caught the eye of UI coach Robb Akey.

“I can still remember watching that game play out last year and thinking, ‘Boy, they had a chance to win that thing,’” Akey said this week. “They did a lot of good things in that game. It obviously proved out that Washington was a pretty good football team last year.

“They’ve got our attention. They’ve had our attention from Day 1.”

Akey, who played and coached at Weber State, said the difference between FBS and FCS starters is often minimal. In fact, the Idaho coaching staff evaluated many of Eastern’s current players through the recruiting process.

But Idaho’s familiarity with EWU extends further than that. UI cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Torey Hunter joined the Vandals just before the start of last year after coaching the secondary at Eastern.

Hunter has no doubt educated his new colleagues on talented Eagles cornerback T.J. Lee and veteran safeties Jeff Minnerly and Allen Brown, both of whom EWU coach Beau Baldwin referred to as quarterbacks in the defensive backfield.

Because of the veteran leadership of Minnerly and Brown, Baldwin said the Eagles’ secondary won’t easily be surprised by what Idaho presents tonight – even with the Vandals’ reworked offense.

After a 2-10 season, Idaho replaced 64-year-old offensive coordinator Steve Axman with Jason Gesser, in just his second year of collegiate coaching. Surrounding Gesser are three experienced newcomers – receivers coach Mike Levenseller, offensive line coach Gordy Shaw and running backs coach Wayne Moses.

The Vandals will also break in new starters tonight at quarterback, tailback, receiver and three offensive line spots. Junior Dominique Blackman was named the starting QB near the end of fall camp, but the Argonaut, UI’s student newspaper, reported Tuesday that Blackman won’t start for undisclosed reasons.

Akey wouldn’t comment on his quarterback situation, but if Blackman doesn’t go, former walk-on Logan Bushnell is likely to get his first career start.

On the other side is Eastern’s 6-foot-4 QB Kyle Padron, a transfer from SMU who started 21 games with the Mustangs from 2009 to 2011. Padron will try to mirror the production of the departed Bo Levi Mitchell, another SMU transfer who led the No. 1 FCS passing offense last year.

“He’s new to them, but he’s played dadgum two seasons’ worth of games at starting quarterback,” Akey said of Padron. “So he’s got some experience.”

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