Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

High-flying EWU faces rugged Northern Iowa Panthers in home opener

Eastern Washington Eagles quarterback Gage Gubrud, right, leads an offense that’s averaging nearly 550 total yards per game. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Looking for some common denominators for Eastern Washington from last year’s game against Northern Iowa?

You’ll need to search pretty hard, as the cast of characters has been altered by injury and happenstance. In last year’s 38-35 loss at UNI, linebackers Alek Kacmarcik and Miquiyah Zamora were two of the top tacklers; neither may play Saturday at Roos Field.

Also in that game, wide receiver Cooper Kupp had nine catches for 179 yards by halftime, when he left with a hip pointer. For this meeting, Kupp is listed as questionable with a sprained shoulder.

And finally at quarterback, Jordan West and Reilly Hennessey combined for 79 percent passing and four touchdowns against a Panthers defense that gave up just 26 rushing yards on 25 carries. Neither is likely to play a big part on Saturday due to the emergence of redshirt sophomore Gage Gubrud.

On second thought, some things never change: As always, and no matter who’s throwing, the Eagles will try to win through the air.

Any why not? After Saturday’s 50-44 overtime loss at North Dakota State, Gubrud is the Football Championship Subdivision’s runaway leader in total offense, with 525 yards a game – a staggering 150 more than second-place Peter Pujals of Holy Cross. Gubrud also ranks in the top four nationally in every major passing category and always is a threat to run.

“They have some great players, and had North Dakota State on the ropes,” UNI coach Mark Farley told the Cedar Rapids Gazette as the Panthers came off a 20-14 home loss to Montana.

“Our secondary will be tested again,” Farley said.

The 10th-ranked Panthers (1-1) will counter with a stout front seven led by All-American defensive end Karter Schult, a 6-foot-4, 270-pounder who last year set a school record with 23 tackles for loss.

After hours of watching film, Eastern coach Beau Baldwin knows Schult simply as “Number 93.”

“He’s incredible,” said Baldwin, who also noticed “Number 30” – also known as linebacker D’Shawn Dexter – for his “flying around on every play.”

As a unit, Baldwin said the Panthers defense is “solid, in your face and aggressive. It’s going to be a serious challenge.”

On the other side of the ball, Eastern must contend with dual-threat quarterback Aaron Bailey, a 222-pound senior who seems to prefer to tuck it and run. Bailey leads a balanced offense (194 yards rushing, 165 passing) that’s backed by an offensive line averaging just over 300 pounds.

Senior running back Tyvis Smith, a 226-pounder, averaged almost 6 yards per carry last year.

Thus, the challenge for Eastern’s defense is the same as last week at NDSU: stop the run and get off the field.

Both have been a challenge in the first two weeks. Washington State’s running backs averaged almost 6 yards per carry, while NDSU gained 280 yards on 47 carries.

Most worrying is EWU’s struggles on third down. WSU and NDSU converted 19 of 29 third-down chances, a 65.5 percent rate that leaves the Eagles next to last in the nation out of 114 FCS schools.

Eastern also needs to cut down on penalties. Last year at UNI, the Eagles were whistled for 159 yards; this year they rank near the bottom of FCS with 92.5 penalty yards per game.