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Eastern Washington ready to rebound from season-opening loss to Washington with visit from D-II Lindenwood

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 6, 2019

Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best talks with quarterback Eric Barriere (3) during second half of the Eagles’ game against Washington on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best talks with quarterback Eric Barriere (3) during second half of the Eagles’ game against Washington on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

Talk about perspective.

Eastern Washington center Spencer Blackburn was on the wrong end of the Eagles’ 47-14 loss to defending Pac-12 champion Washington last week, a game in which Eagles totaled a meager 64 yards on the ground against one of the best Power 5 defenses in the country.

The Eagles were expected to lose, as in 2013 and 2016 when they opened up at Oregon State and Washington State, respectively. EWU, an Football Championship Subdivision power, upset the Beavers and Cougars despite the scholarship disparity.

Blackburn, a sixth-year player and All-American, and the fourth-ranked Eagles switch roles this week as the overwhelming favorite against the little school, NCAA Division II Lindenwood University, which visits Roos Field on Saturday.

The St. Charles, Missouri, program doesn’t have as many scholarship players as EWU, the fan base or a winning tradition. The Lions haven’t had a winning season since 2012.

That doesn’t matter to Blackburn, who is a week removed from being in Lindenwood’s position.

“Any team can come here and pull an upset,” Blackburn said. “Some teams have their weeks, they could very well come here and give us a run for our money. If you go into it half-hearted, without the full anticipation that we’re playing a good team, the game could go either way.”

EWU, which advanced to the 2018 FCS national title game, has traditionally breezed past its Division II and NAIA opposition, including Central Washington, which came to Cheney last season with a No. 9 ranking before falling 58-13.

CWU upset EWU 21-14 in 2006, one of the Eagles’ worst seasons as a Division I member, and gave EWU trouble again in 2010 when the Eagles sweated out a 35-32 win.

But Lindenwood is no Central Washington, a Great Northwest Athletic Conference power.

Third-year head coach Jed Stugart is trying to turn around a Lions team – a team that advanced to the NAIA national title game in 2009 before bumping up to Division II – that has posted back-to-back 4-7 seasons.

Stugart, who had a 65-17 record at his previous stop, NCAA Division II Sioux Falls (South Dakota), returns eight starters on both sides of the ball and five all-conference players overall, including All-American Erik Henneman, arguably the best tight end in his division.

That’s why coaches in the Great Lakes Valley Conference believe Lindenwood has the talent to compete a conference title, picking the Lions second in their preseason conference poll.

“There’s a bunch of kids on our team who could be playing FCS football,” said Stugart, a former defensive coordinator at Northern Colorado.

“We’ve done a great job of recruiting FCS-level players, so it’s not that different.”

Lindenwood quarterback Cade Brister passed for 2,433 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions and rushed for 549 yards and six scores last season.

“Their quarterback likes to run and he can sling it around the yard,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “They run a lot of different sets offensively.

“You don’t know what they’re going to present, this being their first game of the season,” he added of Lindenwood, making the 1,800-mile trek to Cheney. “They’re arguably fresher.”

Stugart said he’s been impressed by EWU and is eager to see how his program stacks up against one of the FCS level’s best.

“Offensively, EWU is very explosive. They have an incredible quarterback (Walter Payton Award preseason candidate Eric Barriere),” Stugart said. “Their receivers catch balls and run downfield. They have great running backs, their offensive line has played (a combined) 250 games together, and their defense is also good.”

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