EUGENE – Autzen Stadium was so quiet during the Eastern Washington walkthrough Friday afternoon, you could hear the chin straps being tightened from 20 yards away.
Players loped through drills, getting a feel for the turf, if not for what lays ahead today.
That’s when the Eagles will strap it on for the season opener against seventh-ranked Oregon and what’s expected to be the 104th consecutive sellout at raucous, rowdy and sometimes nasty Autzen Stadium. The later start (5 p.m.) should only add more liquid fuel to the verbal fire that’s sure to engulf the Eagles offense.
However, Eastern has proven to be noncombustible in the most hostile venues of late, including the win at Oregon State in 2013, the near-miss at Washington last year and the dramatic 52-51 win at Montana State two weeks after that.
“It’s going to be exciting,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said of his first visit to Autzen. “But once you get past that, you’ve got to calm down and focus on each play and not get caught up by the noise.”
With a young Eastern defense seemingly outmatched tonight against the Ducks and former EWU star Vernon Adams Jr., it will fall to the offense to knock a few decibels off the noise meter. Junior quarterback Jordan West will be protected by an all-senior line as he looks downfield to connect with one of the best receiving corps in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“I think we should take some shots so our wideouts can make plays,” said Eagles wideout Kendrick Bourne.
If that sounds a bit self-serving, it may be Eastern’s best strategy against a young Oregon secondary.
After all, the Eagles accounted for 13 touchdown passes against the Beavers and Huskies, and it figures to be Eastern’s best chance to keep this one interesting. Along with starters Bourne (52 catches last year for 814 yards and 10 touchdowns), two-time FCS All-American Cooper Kupp (104 catches, 1,431 yards, 16 TDs) and deep threat Shaq Hill, West also has talented backups Nic Sblendorio, Simba Webster and Terence Grady.
“We need to get some quick passes to get the ball to our playmakers,” said West.
He’ll need it tonight in a game that should see the Eagles throw the ball at least two-thirds of the time. However, the Oregon defense has size and athleticism up front in its 3-4 scheme, and figures to drop one of two linebackers into coverage.
Behind them is a secondary that’s not as green as it first appears. Junior safety Reggie Daniels started all 15 games last year; the other safety, Tyree Robinson, had just one start, but saw action in every game; cornerback Arrion Springs played in nine games last year as a true freshman; and corner Chris Seisay started in the Rose Bowl and national title game after All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was lost to injury.
“They’re young, but they’re always going to have some talent back there,” said West.
Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said this week that he expects the Eagles to employ six offensive linemen and/or multiple tight ends at times, alternating with a wide-open pass attack.
Pellum sounded confident Wednesday in his new-look secondary.
“I think right now we’re primed to go out and have a good performance,” he said. “It’s, how well do we adjust in the game? How well, once we see something, do we adapt? We’re excited for the opportunity.”
So are the Eagles.
“It’s going to be fun,” EWU offensive lineman Clay DeBord said. “Hopefully, we can shock the nation and shock the world.”
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