POCATELLO, Idaho – The emphasis of the Eastern Washington University game plan has never wavered under head coach football coach Paul Wulff.
“Regardless of the opponent,” Wulff says every week, “it’s still about us. We need to play well together as a team and program and execute better.”
That may be more important than usual for the fifth-ranked Eagles (1-1) when they face Idaho State (2-1) at 2 p.m. today.
In addition to making a difficult road trip to face an unexpectedly tough team, there will be more than the usual hoopla surrounding this Big Sky Conference opener in Holt Arena.
Three things factor into possible distractions for the Eagles: ISU gets to open conference play at home for the first time in the seven years Larry Lewis has been head coach; it’s the 200th game at Holt Arena; and it is the Bengals’ homecoming.
“Those issues have very little to do with us executing technique and coming off the ball and tackling well,” Wulff said. “They have no bearing on the fundamentals that win a football game. Our focus has to be on execution, the things that happen between the white lines.”
Idaho State is a formidable opponent without the home-field advantage, a far cry from last year’s 3-8, 2-5 team that lost 47-22 in Cheney.
That team was one dimensional, throwing the ball 575 times. The running game produced 754 yards and eight touchdowns on 322 attempts. With the quarterback and top receiver gone from that team, Lewis has adjusted, and Wulff said that makes preparations more difficult than usual.
“Their philosophy is different now. You have to adjust to their new talent,” Wulff said. “They have two very, very talented running backs that can go the distance on you any time they touch the ball, and they play them both at the same time. They have two or three receivers who can do the very same thing. They’re scary on offense.”
In three games the Bengals have rushed for 616 yards and 10 touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Ken Comist has 296 yards and six TDs and sophomore Josh Barnett has 217 yards.
New quarterback Matt Hagler has been effective despite five interceptions, completing 53 of 86 passes for 657 yards and two TDs. The sophomore spreads the ball well between five different receivers.
“We’re going to stick to basic fundamentals, which is stopping the run,” Eastern cornerback Jesse Hendrix said. “The key to our success is always stopping the run first.”
ISU is also vastly improved on defense, courtesy of size, experience and depth on the line.
“They’re as good as we’ve faced so far,” Wulff said. “Their line might be the best in the Big Sky. They can dominate you, flat out dominate you. If we play like we did on the offensive line last week, they’ll beat us. It’s going to be a challenge for our offense.”
Though the Eagles smacked Western Oregon 48-7 last week, the offense was spotty in the first half before coasting in with almost 600 yards.
“We turned it up in the second half,” EWU quarterback Erik Meyer said. “I think that is going to carry over. We know it’s going to be tough. It’s a dome, it’s on turf, it’s going to be loud, but it’s just a matter of going out and playing our game.”
That’s even without 290-pound senior defensive tackle Jermaine Horn, ISU’s third-leading tackler who was suspended this week after a post-game altercation on Saturday.
“In a situation like that, more often than not, a team rallies behind adversity,” Wulff said. “(Besides) they have four senior defensive tackles and the backup plays more reps than Horn so it’s a non-issue.”
ISU has won 16 of 19 home games and four straight homecomings. … Eastern has an 18-8 edge in the series and is 6-1 in overtime games. … The last trip to Pocatello was a 55-52 loss in double overtime, a game that didn’t sit well with the Eagles. “Like Coach says, at a place like that you have to win by 21 just to win by 7,” Jesse Hendix said. … Injuries are a problem for Eastern. Cornerback Isaiah Trufant (ankle) and backup defensive ends Mike Wolfe (knee) and Jacob Kragt (shoulder) were sidelined indefinitely after the last game, joining starting offensive tackle Chris Perkins (ankle), backup quarterback Chris Peerboom (finger) and special teams player Chris Anderson (wrist).
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