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Analysis: After non-Big Sky slate, here’s what we know about Eastern Washington football

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 17, 2019, 7:38 p.m.

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere  calls a play during a game against Lindenwood University at Roos Field in Cheney on Sept. 7, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere calls a play during a game against Lindenwood University at Roos Field in Cheney on Sept. 7, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

When Eastern Washington makes the 75-mile trek to the Kibbie Dome on Saturday to face fellow Big Sky Conference member and – depending on whom you ask – rival Idaho, it won’t count in the conference standings.

But when Football Championship Subdivision independent and ex-Big Sky member North Dakota visits EWU next week, it will count in the conference standings.

Welcome to life in the 13-team conference, where unbalanced scheduling and a recent shift in membership has caused headaches for athletic directors and confusion for some fans.

After getting blown out 47-14 at defending Pac-12 champion Washington, handling NCAA Division II Lindenwood University 59-31 and blowing a 21-point lead in a 49-45 loss at fellow FCS power Jacksonville State, the Eagles will now face familiar foes.

Here’s what we know about 11th-ranked EWU (1-2) as it begins its nine-game stretch against Big Sky (and former Big Sky) members, starting with the Vandals (1-2).

EWU’s offense is good again

Like most EWU football teams since the turn of the century, this offense is explosive. The Eagles are averaging 504 yards – 342.3 passing and 161.7 rushing – and are putting up just under 40 points a game. Turnovers in first-year offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker’s offense have also been at a premium. The Eagles have lost one fumble and thrown two interceptions, both in the Jacksonville State loss – the latter pick in the closing minute while working against the clock.

Defense has early troubles

EWU’s defense yielded 30 or more points twice in 2018. First-year defensive coordinator Eti Ena’s group is giving up 42.3 points and 436 yards (302 through the air) a game in 2019. The Eagles’ defensive line hasn’t applied the consistent pressure it needs to help a young secondary that’s given up a slew of big plays to FBS and NCAA Division II foes alike. Some of these maladies are injury-related (for example, key nose tackle Keith Moore hasn’t played a snap this season) and may improve as more bodies heal up. Special teams troubles haven’t helped this group, putting it near its goal line on multiple occasions. Eastern’s defense has forced two turnovers in three games, both interceptions by defensive linemen. It also likely faced the best two quarterbacks it will see all season in Washington’s Jacob Eason and Jacksonville State’s Zerrick Cooper, a Clemson transfer.

Barriere has highs, lows

Quarterback Eric Barriere’s performance against Jacksonville State was a microcosm of his 13 collegiate starts. When he’s good and decisive – such as he was the first half, completing 17 of 23 passes for 216 yards, four touchdowns and his first interception of the season – few QBs in the country are better. When he appears to be second-guessing his reads – like he did in the second half when he was 7 of 21 for 88 yards, a touchdown and an interception while battling humidity-induced cramps – it spells doom for EWU. Barriere, a major reason EWU reached the FCS title game a year ago, is still having a nice season (1,027 yards passing, 11 touchdowns), playing more heads-up football in protecting his body with slides and running out of bounds and making the extra check-down. For EWU to make a push for another Big Sky title, he’ll need to limit turnovers in pivotal stretches. All three of his multiple-interception games have come in losses against FCS Top 25 opponents away from Roos Field, including losses to Weber State and North Dakota State in 2018 and JSU last weekend.

Boston ranks as go-to receiver

Sophomore receiver Andrew Boston has been the most consistent, hauling in 13 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in two games, and sitting out the Lindenwood game to nurse a minor injury. Dre’ Sonte Dorton turned heads when he broke Cooper Kupp’s single-game receiving record against Lindenwood (15 catches for 289 yards), but has was held to one catch for 6 yards against Washington and didn’t register a reception against Jacksonville State.

More targets for tight ends

Tight ends totaled 38 catches in a 15-game season last year in Bodie Reeder’s system, considered a healthy amount. EWU is well on its way to surpassing that total with highly targeted Jayce Gilder hauling in 10 receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown and backup Dylan Ingram notching two catches for 36 yards.

Trouble in the kicking game

The Eagles rank in the bottom tier of the FCS in punting, with Trevor Bowens averaging 32.5 yards a kick, substantially less than a year ago with Freddy Mitchell Award winner Roldan Alcobendas (44.9 yards). EWU also misses Alcobendas’ services in place-kicking (he went 16 for 16 in 2018), as Andre Slyter has missed two of his three field-goal attempts. Redshirt freshman Seth Harrison stepped in against Jacksonville State last week and nailed his only attempt, a 22-yarder.

More allowed sacks than expected

One of the most experienced and decorated offensive lines in the country has given up 10 sacks in three games, among the worst in the FCS. Idaho (14) and Portland State (12) are the only Big Sky teams to have allowed more. Some are blown assignments. Others are because Barriere took too long to release the football.

Thin depth at running back

When Antoine Custer carried the ball a career-high 28 times against Jacksonville State, it was by necessity. The Eagles’ other versatile, experienced senior running back, Dennis Merritt, is likely out of the season due to a leg injury. The team’s proven bruiser the previous two seasons, Tamarick Pierce, has suited up, but has yet to register a carry in 2019, still trying to get back to 100 percent after knee surgery and rehab. For depth, the Eagles have turned to a group of freshmen, Isaiah Lewis, Micah Smith and Silas Perreiah. Perreiah, a 2019 Northwest Christian graduate, was given the ball in a fourth-and-1 situation at Jacksonville State and was stopped at the line of scrimmage.

Warren hasn’t provided boost – yet

Graduate transfer Jusstis Warren, who appeared in 31 games at Washington before making the move to Cheney, was expected to help boost the Eagles’ pass rush, but he’s missed the last two games and wasn’t suited up at practice Tuesday. He rotated at the buck linebacker position with Mitch Johnson against the Huskies in Week 1, totaling two tackles.

Key defenders banged up

EWU’s two starting linebackers, Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach, appeared injured on Tuesday. Ojoh, who went down in the fourth quarter on Saturday, was on crutches and had a wrap around his foot. Sendelbach, who had 12 tackles and finished the game, was sidelined in an arm sling. Starting cornerback Darreon Moore, who also went down in the JSU game, was also sidelined at practice with a wrap around his upper leg.

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