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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eastern opens Big Sky play with payback in mind

FILE - In this 1996 file photo, a mule train winds its way down the Bright Angel trail at Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. (JEFF ROBBINS / Associated Press)
FILE - In this 1996 file photo, a mule train winds its way down the Bright Angel trail at Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. (JEFF ROBBINS / Associated Press)

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – Almost literally, the Eagles flew here with blinders on.

As the team charter plane soared over the Grand Canyon on a crystal-clear Friday morning, most of the non-football types had their noses pressed up to the tiny windows.

The players and coaches? Not so much.

Most of the Eagles were looking down on their cellphones. Coach Beau Baldwin sat with headphones on, his window shut tight. This is a business trip, after all.

And even with the canyon just 15 minutes from the airport, there was no thought of sightseeing – not with the Big Sky Conference opener looming Saturday night at Northern Arizona, the only team in the league with an actual winning streak against the Eagles.

It began two years ago in the Skydome. After a failed fourth-down pass deep in Lumberjacks territory, the Eagles watched NAU drive 77 yards in three plays to hand Eastern a 28-27 defeat. Last year, the Lumberjacks came to Cheney and claimed a dominating 52-30 win.

“Losing two in a row to these guys, that’s the stuff we remember,” safety Zach Bruce said as the fourth-ranked Eagles went through their Friday afternoon walkthrough at the Walkup Skydome.

Echoed linebacker Miquiyah Zamora: “This game means a little more.”

Baldwin understands the sentiment but doesn’t dwell on history.

“The way I look at it, this is the 2016 season … each year is its own,” he said.

So far, so good for this year’s Eagles, who are showing inventiveness on offense and nastiness on defense to fashion a 2-1 record against the toughest nonconference slate in school history.

There’s no letup as conference play opens against a Lumberjacks team that’s picked to win the Big Sky. At 1-2, NAU is a mild disappointment but brings a versatile offense that will test the Eagles in new ways.

Sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, the FCS national freshman of the year in 2013, is back in the groove completing almost 70 percent of his passes. Most of the Eagles compared him favorably to Washington State’s Luke Falk.

“He’s like Falk … but he also has the ability to extend plays,” safety Mitch Fettig said.

The good news is that EWU senior nose tackle Matt Sommer is expected to play, recovered from a knee injury that cost him the first three games.

“We just have to play disciplined football, and at the end of the day, we’ll be successful,” Zamora said.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles are still uncertain whether All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp’s sprained shoulder will allow him to play.

“Cooper is still minute by minute,” Baldwin said. “You just have to get a feel … tomorrow in pregame, we’re going to see where he’s at.”

The Eastern offense has done just fine in six quarters without Kupp, as wideouts Kendrick Bourne, Stu Stiles, Shaq Hill and others have risen to the occasion.

They’ve done that with two quarterbacks, as Reilly Hennessey relieved Gage Gubrud and rallied the Eagles to a 34-30 win over Northern Iowa.

So who starts at quarterback on Saturday?

“I don’t know, honestly it’s one of those things where we open up the competition,” Baldwin said. “We have a plan in mind, but it’s going to be how the game flows.”

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