LUBBOCK, Texas – The Eastern Washington football players weren’t exactly sweating with nerves as they walked onto the Texas Tech campus Friday night.
Heck, they weren’t sweating at all, thanks to temperatures in the Texas Panhandle that are 10 degrees cooler than what they left behind in Cheney.
And the nerves? Intimidation is in the eye of the beholder, figures Eastern nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli.
“The Red (at Roos Field) is way more intimidating,” Tiuli said as his teammates walked around 60,000-seat Jones AT&T Stadium, taking selfies and acting, well, cool.
“We just have to play the best ball we can play,” Tiuli said. “Our young guys are mature enough, they know when to lock in.”
That will be on Saturday afternoon, when Eastern will kick off the Aaron Best era with an intriguing nonconference matchup against Texas Tech.
Both teams promise to be more balanced on offense, but the football will fly early and often.
“First one to 500 passing yards wins,” one online guru Tweeted earlier in the week, though football is seldom that predictable.
Of course, nobody in this business wants to be predictable, which leaves both sides with a few challenges.
For Eastern, they linger in four main areas:
- Can new offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder rise to the occasion on the big stage, where predecessors Beau Baldwin and Troy Taylor have thrived? Against a Power 5 team, the margin for error is small, and it will be easy for Reeder to be too stubborn – running too early and too often. Or too reckless. Going deep on first-and-10 probably isn’t the right call either, as the long ball has been an issue in preseason scrimmages.
- Has the recently reconfigured Eastern offensive line regained the chemistry lost when left tackle Nick Ellison abruptly left the program three weeks ago? Former right tackle Chris Schlichting should be fine on the left side, but several players could find themselves in new roles. Also, has this group jelled enough to succeed in the run game against FBS-level talent?
- Who will win the coverage battle, Eastern’s new generation of receivers or the small army of transfer defensive backs brought in by the Red Raiders? Savvy route-running was a big part of Eastern’s offensive success in recent years, but that comes with experience. Most of the Eagles don’t have it yet.
- Will a beefier Eastern defensive front be able to apply consistent pressure on new Tech quarterback Nic Shimonek? The redshirt senior is no threat to run but has a big arm and a quick release. Shimonek inherits the most prolific offense in the nation (led last year by Pat Mahomes) and has a superb group of wideouts. However, the Tech run game has historically been anemic. That could lead to an anomaly in which the small-school D-line has the upper hand in the run game.
No matter what, the Eagles won’t be intimidated by the Red Raiders or the expected crowd of 50,000-plus. Big-stage fright simply isn’t in their DNA.
The humidity is another issue, one that Best has mitigated with a heavy dose of afternoon practices during an abnormally warm August in the Inland Northwest.
“It’s going to be warm, you’re going to be taxed from a mental standpoint and you’re going to be taxed from a physical standpoint,” Best said.
“And just because you are experienced doesn’t mean you are better, it just means you’re more experienced. So it’s our job as coaches to maximize everybody’s potential and to get guys to overachieve.”
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