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Eastern Washington football faces tough slate this season, even with incomplete schedule

UPDATED: Sat., April 14, 2018, 6:36 p.m.

Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best celebrates the Eagles’ defensive efforts  during a Sept. 30, 2017, game in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best celebrates the Eagles’ defensive efforts during a Sept. 30, 2017, game in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

For all the hand-wringing over Eastern Washington’s incomplete football schedule, one thing is certain:

The Eagles could fill one of their opens dates with a high school team and this would still be a challenging fall.

As it stands, Eastern’s slate is among the toughest in recent memory, mostly because the middle tier of the Big Sky seems better than ever.

Weber State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona will be formidable opponents, and two of those games are on the road.

Montana is off the schedule but is replaced by an Idaho program that will have plenty of FBS-caliber talent.

And don’t forget Montana State and UC Davis, two programs on the upswing.

Throw in the money game at Washington State and this 10-game lineup stacks up well against almost anything the Eagles have faced recently.

There’s a bright spot for the Eagles’ defense: WSU, Weber State, Southern Utah and Idaho must break in new quarterbacks.

No matter who completes their schedule, the Eagles figure to need seven wins against the teams already confirmed.

Fortunately, the Eagles return one of the most experienced teams in the conference, with 17 returning starters, and one of the most potent offenses in the nation.

Here’s a look at Eastern’s current schedule:

Sept. 1: Open date

Sept. 8 at Northern Arizona (7-5 overall last year): The Lumberjacks, who beat out EWU for an at-large FCS playoff berth last year, return 16 starters. Among them are first-team all-Big Sky QB Case Cookus (3,413 passing yards, with 22 TDs and six INTs) and wide receiver Emmanuel Butler (fifth in NAU career receiving yardage with 2,541). NAU will be a tough out in this nonconference game.

Sept. 15 at Washington State (8-5): Too bad this isn’t the opener, since WSU often stumbles early and will be breaking in a new quarterback. EWU has played the Cougs tough recently, losing 24-20 in 2012 and winning 45-42 in 2016. Expect WSU to be looking for some payback. The Cougars return 14 starters, but coach Mike Leach had to replace seven assistants.

Sept. 22 vs. Cal Poly (1-10): The Eagles’ Big Sky opener figures to be the easiest game of the year. The Mustangs went 1-10 last year, beating only winless Portland State. However, Poly returns all of its offensive starters, with record-setting fullback Joe Protheroe and quarterback Khaleel Jenkins back after missing most of last year to injury.

Sept. 29 at Montana State (5-6): The Bobcats haven’t beaten EWU since 2011, but they are getting better every year under third-year coach Jeff Choate (7-3 in his last 10 conference games). Chris Murray goes into his junior year as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the league.

Oct. 6 vs. Southern Utah (9-3): Considering that the Thunderbirds have won two of the past three league titles, this is probably the biggest home game of the year. SUU must replace quarterback Patrick Tyler and several key defensive players.

Oct. 13 at Weber State (11-3): After spoiling Eastern’s homecoming last year, the Wildcats are giving the Eagles a chance for some payback. Weber is coming off a breakthrough season that included a near-upset of defending FCS champ James Madison, but loses heavily on both sides of the ball. In particular, All-American tight end Andrew Vollert and quarterback Stefan Cantwell will be hard to replace.

Oct. 20: Open date

Oct. 27 vs. Idaho (4-8): Dropping down to FCS means the Vandals will have an edge with loads of FBS talent, which gives them an advantage against the Big Sky. UI has three candidates to replace quarterback Matt Linehan, but it returns first-team Sun Belt Conference linebacker Tony Lashley and second-team linebacker Kaden Ellis.

Nov. 3 at North Colorado (3-7): This game is never a gimme. Two years ago in Cheney, EWU trailed at halftime before rallying. In 2015, the Eagles needed a field goal on the last play to win 43-41 at UNC.

Nov. 10 vs. UC Davis (5-6): Payton Award finalist Keelan Doss, the best receiver in FCS, torched the Eagles for 208 yards last year. Eastern is 5-0 all time against the Aggies, but won by only a field goal last year in California.

Nov. 17 at Portland State (0-11): The Vikings can only get better, right? PSU returns 14 starters and the future looks solid as only 11 returnees are seniors. Fourth-year coach Bruce Barnum is changing his defensive scheme with new coordinator Payam Saadat.


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