The cleat is firmly on the other foot for Eastern Washington’s home opener on Saturday.
Last week, it was the Eagles’ measuring themselves against a Pac-12 team in their opening game at Oregon State. This week, it’s Division II Western Oregon opening the season with a chance to make a statement.
So how hungry are the Wolves?
“We’re anxious to get going,” head coach Arne Ferguson said. “But we have two big hurdles: One, Eastern is nine days ahead of us with practice, plus a game under their belts; and the amount of quality players that they have.”
Ferguson said he was impressed not only with the scrambling ability of Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams, but also the Eagle offensive line in the 49-46 win over the Beavers. The Eastern defense is scary, Anderson said, “because of their multiple fronts, very athletic corners and the versatility of their linebackers.”
The Wolves, who compete in the Great Northern Athletic Conference, return 39 letter winners and 14 starters from last year’s team that finished 6-5 overall and 6-4 in the GNAC.
WOU returns seven all-conference players, including wide receiver Tyrell Williams and offensive linemen Marcus Cuellar and Alex Jones. Williams caught 39 passes for 658 yards and four touchdowns in earning first team all-league honors last year.
Juniors Ryan Bergman and Trey Shimabukoru will split time at quarterback. “We’re very excited about where they’re at,” said Ferguson, now in his ninth season at the Monmouth, Ore., school.
On defense, Western Oregon returns three all-league selections, including returning GNAC Defensive Lineman of the Year Gusttave Benthin. Last year, Benthin led the GNAC in tackles for losses with 12 for 47 yards.
Western Oregon leads the all-time series, which goes back to the Eagles’ NAIA days. Eastern trails 9-6-1 overall, but has won the last four, including a 35-14 win in Cheney in 2009.
Scrambling for success
So how did the Eastern receivers find so much open space against Oregon State? Apart from quarterback Vernon Adams’ ability to make defenders miss, it’s mostly the result of practicing their scramble drill.
“It’s never a perfect science, but we know it’s going to happen thoughout the course of the game, so we try to get as many reps as possible,” quarterbacks coach Zak Hill said Tuesday.
The scramble drill is all about receivers feeling the play develop and adjusting their routes. “Our guys have a great feel,” Hill said.
Room to improve on defense
The Eastern defense gave up 46 points and 527 yards total offense against the Beavers. Those numbers are “not what they want,” Baldwin said of his defensive coaches and players.
Film showed something else: Beaver quarterback Sean Mannin (37 for 43, 422 yards and three touchdowns) made a lot of great plays, adjusting to Eastern’s coverage with more underneath routes.
“A lot of those plays graded out positive for the defense,” Baldwin said. “We were just inches off from making some plays.”
In the process, several younger players saw their first live action, including several true freshmen: linebackers Albert Havili and Jake Gall, nose tackle Matthew Sommer and end Samson Ebukam. Redshirt freshman Miquiyah Zamora also saw action at linebacker.
“They’re the next wave, the next crew,” Baldwin said.
Lost in the numbers were three stops in the first half, which helped the Eagles build a 12-point halftime lead. Havili forced one punt with a third-down tackle on OSU receiver Kevin Cummings.
Almost something special
Special teams coach Jeff Schmedding said he was pleased with the kickoff and punt coverage units, “even with some new guys” seeing action. Schmedding added that the Eagles were close to breaking some big kickoff returns. “Now we just have to make it happen,” he said.
Two extra points failed, however. The first was a “protection issue,” Schmedding said, and the second was simply a case of Adams dropping the ball after the snap.
Five Big Sky teams are once again ranked in both major FCS top 25 polls. Eastern moved to No. 2 in both polls, behind two-time defending national champion North Dakota State. Montana State is third in both polls. Cal Poly is ranked 10th by the coaches and 12th by the Sports Network. Montana moved to 13th in the Sports Network Poll and to 18th in the Coaches’ Poll. Northern Arizona fell to 22nd in the Sports Network and 24th in the Coaches’ Poll. Only the CAA with six ranked teams has more ranked than the Big Sky. … Northern Arizona senior running back Zack Bauman rushed for 71 yards in a 35-0 loss to Arizona. Bauman upped his career total to 3,747 yards, 11th on the Big Sky’s all-time list. He is one yard behind Idaho’s Sherriden May, who rushed for 3,748 yards from 1991-94. … Portland State had 672 yards of total offense in its win over Eastern Oregon, the 10th-most in school history. … ISU and former Eastern coach Mike Kramer can move into sole possession of fourth place on the Big Sky’s all-time victories list with a win on Saturday. He is currently tied for fourth with 80 wins. Northern Arizona’s Jerome Souers is third on the list with 84.