There’s a glaring disparity in scholarships, depth, resources and, at many positions, talent between the Eastern Washington and Central Washington football programs.
But when the FCS Eagles and NCAA Division II Wildcats – both ranked in the top 10 of their respective national preseason polls – lock up at 1:05 p.m. Saturday at Roos Field, EWU expects the school from Ellensburg to bring its usual toughness and a chip on its shoulder.
It’s given the Eagles trouble in the past.
“Those are type of kids that want to be in our spot,” EWU running back Sam McPherson said. “They want to be at Eastern and playing Division I football. It’s the same with us when we go play Washington State.”
Some already have.
The Wildcats, who return more than a dozen starters and eight all-conference players from last year’s 11-1 squad, are led by quarterback Reilly Hennessey, the former EWU quarterback who, in two seasons in Cheney, appeared in 11 games and threw for more than 1,000 yards.
All-American defensive back Tyler Hasty began his career at Oregon State. Running backs Zach Floyd (Portland State) and Michael Roots (Southern Utah) experienced the FCS level.
One of the top rushing offenses in the country last season (242 yards per game), the Wildcats return four of their five starting offensive linemen, three of whom earned all-conference distinction, including 6-foot-5, 300-pound James Moore.
CWU operates out of one-back, no-huddle offense with multiple sets. On defense, it runs out of a 4-2 base.
Hennessey, who combined for nearly 3,000 yards with his arm and feet last season, is working with many new skills players around him, and will lean on the experience up front. EWU head coach Aaron Best, a former offensive line coach, sees a well-coached offensive front in CWU, a good test for a defensive line that had its troubles in 2017.
“I would argue that outside the quarterback position, that their offensive line and run game is where really pride themselves on,” Best said. “On defense, it’s their secondary.”
Against an explosive team such as Eastern, CWU head coach Ian Shoemaker said he wants to keep EWU’s offense off the field.
“We want to be able to try and run the ball, control the clock,” Shoemaker said. “If we can avoid giving up big plays and efficient moving the ball, that can play into our hands.”
EWU senior rover Cole Karstetter, a Ferris High alum, said he’s impressed with he’s seen on film in CWU’s run game.
“It’s going to be tough. They averaged over 240 yards last season. And with those transfers, you don’t know what you’re going to get, so we’re excited for the challenge,” Karstetter said.
The return of All-Big Sky Conference first-team nose tackle Jay Tee-Tiuli from injury will likely help the Eagles disrupt the inside.
EWU returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense, and dozens more have earned starts throughout their careers. Behind All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud and a deep offensive line, EWU, which ranked fifth in the country in yards last season (476 yards per game), figures to move the ball against a CWU defense that experienced major change from last season.