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Eastern Washington notebook: Ex-Cal Poly coach Eti Ena’s defensive ends step up to slow Mustang rushing attack

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 22, 2018, 11:06 p.m.

Eti Ena, Eastern Washington’s associate head coach who works primarily with defensive ends, said he needed more from his men on the edges.

Just three years removed from his stint as a Cal Poly assistant, Ena knew the chore the Eagles’ defensive line would have in stopping the Mustangs’ triple-option offense, an old-school look capable of moving the chains on the staunchest of FCS defenses.

It had early success in the Eagles’ 70-17 shellacking of Cal Poly on Saturday at Roos Field, racking up nearly 400 yards rushing with 24 first downs, but the Eagles’ defense stiffened up as the game went on.

“They do a great job with their adjustments, and we had to adjust to what they were doing, try to think what they’re thinking,” Ena said after the rout. “But if you can get a good lead on a team like that, it takes them away from their bread and better.”

That’s what the explosive, sixth-ranked Eagles did in forcing a one-dimensional Cal Poly team to play catch-up without enough offensive firepower.

One of Ena’s pupils, senior defensive end Jim Townsend, added to the Eagles’ gaudy scoring total –the program’s most lopsided Big Sky Conference win since 2014 – when the Eagles handled North Dakota 54-3.

The hulking defensive end rumbled 62 yards after a fumble recovery, and the Okanogan, Washington, product scored his first collegiate touchdown. The play gave EWU a 35-10 lead right before the halftime, putting Cal Poly in a three-score hole that would only get deeper.

“Mitch Johnson made a great play with the strip sack and the ball just bounced into my hands – and I ran for dear life,” Townsend said. “I was slipping around. I was thinking some little guy was going to come and try to catch me, but it was just a big lineman and I was able to beat him.”

Ena’s two other defensive ends, Johnson and Nick Foerstel, also heeded his request to step up this week.

Johnson, a redshirt freshman, had two tackles for a loss, including the sack, to increase his team-leading total to seven tackles for a loss this year and four sacks. Foerstel had also had his hand in a tackle for a loss, six total tackles and a quarterback hurry.

“It’s always nerve-racking to go up against a team like that has the potential to be a dangerous outfit,” Ena said.

EWU beat Poly 44-21 on the road in 2016, when both teams qualified for the FCS playoffs. In 2015, the Eagles nipped the Mustangs in 42-41 in overtime.

In Cal Poly’s last game against a Big Sky member this season, it was edged at home 24-17 by defending conference champion and seventh-ranked Weber State.

Dangerous depth

at running back

With Antoine Custer – who rushed for 134 yards and two TDs on eight carries after returning from injury – back in the fold, EWU’s depth at running back increased substantially.

The Eagles, who average 289.5 rushing yards per game, have five ball carriers with at least 100 total yards and a touchdown this season, including Sam McPherson (495 yards, three TDs), Tamarick Pierce (167 yards TD), Dennis Merritt (164 yards, two TDs), quarterback Gage Gubrud (135 yards, TD) and Custer.

“I’ll ride with those four (running backs) with anyone in this league,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “Everyone of those guys makes the (offensive lineman better). It’s the tailbacks that make the offensive line better.”

Eagle steps up

Senior wide receiver Zach Eagle didn’t crack the Eagles’ two-deep on offense three weeks ago, only as the team’s punt returner.

With EWU’s primary pass catcher, Nsimba Webster, limited the last two games with an ankle injury, Eagle has made the most of his reps.

He’s been EWU’s leading receiver the last two games, totaling nine catches for 134 yards and a touchdown. He was a trusty outlet in the Eagles’ rout over Cal Poly.

“Zach is a stud. Coach’s kid,” Best said. “He rises up. We’re human, and we all make mistakes, but he is going to have very few of them.”

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