Eastern Washington has secured 13 straight winning seasons and is aiming for another.
This time – coronavirus precautions and status of the 2020 season still pending – the Eagles look to atone for their 2019 playoff absence and return to the top of the Big Sky Conference.
EWU, ranked as high as No. 18 in HERO Sports’ preseason poll, faces three of the conference’s heavyweights – Weber State, Montana State and Montana – at home, where the Eagles boast a school-record 14-game winning streak.
Here’s a breakdown of EWU’s 2020 schedule.
Sept. 5 in Gainesville, Florida
The Eagles get a $750,000 check to face a Dan Mullen-led Florida team that has qualified for a New Year’s Six Bowl in both of his two seasons as head coach.
Former Florida head coach and ex-EWU quarterback Jim McElwain helped schedule the guarantee game, the Eagles’ first against a Southeastern Conference foe.
The Gators, a top-10 team in nearly every preseason poll, are expected to push for a SEC East title and return several standouts and NFL prospects, including quarterback Kyle Trask (2,941 passing yards and 25 touchdowns in 2019).
EWU had been known as a precarious guarantee opponent for bigger FBS teams over the past decade, beating Oregon State (49-46) in 2013, Washington State (45-43) in 2016 and putting scares into Washington in 2011 (30-27), Washington State in 2012 (24-20) and Washington again in 2014 (59-52).
In the past three seasons, however, the Eagles have been outscored a combined 162-48 in blowout losses at Texas Tech, Washington State and Washington.
Florida may be among the most talented and physical teams EWU has ever faced. Depending on the Sunshine State’s social distancing mandates come September, the Eagles may face the Gators in front of 88,000 fans.
Sept. 12 at Roos Field in Cheney
The Leathernecks are coming off a 1-11 season and last-place finish in the tradition-rich Missouri Valley Conference and are expected to end up in the same neighborhood this fall.
Third-year coach Jared Elliot is trying to rebuild Western Illinois into the playoff team it was in 2017, leading the Leathernecks to a 5-6 record in 2018 before taking a major step back last season, when the team averaged 18 points a game, yielding 37.
Western Illinois, which had a balanced run-pass offense in 2019, return a two-time first-team All-MVC selection in running back Clint Ratkovich.
Connor Sampson, who threw for 2,092 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions, returns at quarterback.
EWU hasn’t faced a MVC foe during the regular season since 2016.
Sept. 19 at Roos Field
A Big Sky Conference foe, but not a Big Sky Conference game for EWU, due to the 13-team conference’s unbalanced scheduling.
The Lumberjacks had one of the best passing offenses (361 yards per game) in the country last season under first-year head coach and former Washington State assistant Chris Ball, but one of the worst defenses (527 yards allowed per game), equating to a 4-8 season.
NAU loses its mainstay quarterback Case Cookus, who recently signed a rookie free-agent contract with the New York Giants, and other key seniors who earned All-Big Sky distinction.
The Lumberjacks, who have lost their previous three games against EWU, return the bulk of their talented receiving corps, including first-team All-Big Sky talent Brandon Porter.
But who will throw to these guys? A four-man battle is expected for the starting quarterback job, the first time NAU will open the season without a starter named Cookus since 2014.
Sept. 26 in Cedar City, Utah
After sharing the Big Sky title in 2017, the swooning Thunderbirds have since compiled a 4-19 record.
Compounding Southern Utah’s troubles was the offseason transfer of starting quarterback Chris Helbig, who is now at Eastern Michigan. It also lost the heart and soul of the team, three-time All-American center Zach Larsen, to graduation.
Fifth-year head coach Demario Warren, 35, will look to an experienced secondary that includes All-Big Sky selections Carlton Johnson and AJ Stanley.
Southern Utah did not face EWU in 2019.
Oct. 3 at Roos Field
EWU’s fiercest rival, Montana, hasn’t won a game in Cheney since 2008.
But the Grizzlies, ranked as high as seventh in the Athlon and HERO preseason media polls, is experiencing a resurgence in Bobby Hauck’s second stint as Montana’s head coach, reaching the FCS quarterfinals last season.
Montana, which defeated the Eagles 34-17 in Missoula last season without since-graduated star quarterback Dalton Sneed (injury), returns a wealth of experience and talent on both sides of the football, including standout receivers Samori Toure and Samuel Akem, running back Marcus Knight and linebacker Jace Lewis, who racked up 131 tackles in 2019.
Hauck also signed several FBS transfers in the offseason, including former South Florida quarterback Kirk Rygol. Cameron Humphrey also returns after starting three games last season, including the win over EWU.
Oct. 10 in Greeley, Colorado
The worst program in the Big Sky Conference has a new head coach in former NFL veteran wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, a Pro Bowl selection during his time with the Denver Broncos in the 1990s and 2000s.
Don’t remember him? Try his son, sensational Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
That namesake has already helped bring in talented recruits.
The Bears, who went 2-10 last season, lost the majority of their top talent to graduation, but have signed three FBS transfers in the offseason, including former Michigan running back Tru Wilson, a hard-running fullback who totaled 101 career carries for 586 yards and two touchdowns for the Wolverines.
EWU, which has won 12 straight against Northern Colorado, hasn’t lost to the Bears since 1981 when both schools were NCAA Division II.
Oct. 17 at Roos Field
When Idaho upset the Eagles 35-27 in Moscow last season, it brought life to a regional rivalry that needed resuscitation.
The Vandals, who came back to the Big Sky Conference after two decades in the FBS, have yet to post a winning season since their return.
Idaho has had talent at several positions, but lacked a game-changing quarterback. The addition of transfer Mike Beaudry may help.
Beaudry (6-5, 250) was named the starter at UConn last season before suffering an injury in the season opener. In 2017, he led West Florida to the NCAA Division II national title game.
If Beaudry wins the starting job and stays healthy, he’ll have bowling-ball running back Aundre Carter behind him and a proven receiver in Cutrell Haywood.
Defensively, the Vandals will be led by one of the Big Sky’s finest linebacker groups in Tre Walker, Christian Ellis and Charles Akanno.
Oct. 24 at Roos Field
Weber State has shared the Big Sky title three consecutive seasons, and advanced to the FCS semifinals last fall.
The Wildcats are looking to take the next step under coach Jay Hill, a defensive mind who has held the Eagles’ powerful offense to an average of 13.3 points in their previous three meetings.
EWU currently owns a school-record 13-game home winning streak. The last time the Eagles lost a home game was in 2017, a 28-20 loss to Weber State.
Weber State did not face EWU in 2019.
Weber State, ranked No. 3 in Athlon’s preseason poll, is expected to contend for its fourth straight conference title with its usually salty defense and an offense that includes All-American running back Josh Davis and two other running backs who earned All-Big Sky distinction in Kevin Smith and Clay Moss.
The Wildcats’ quarterback the previous seasons, Jake Constantine, transferred to Towson.
First-year offensive coordinator Matt Hammer recently added former Middle Tennessee transfer dual-threat QB and JC star Randall Johnson (6-5, 230).
Whoever wins the starting job will have experienced receivers in returning starters Devon Cooley and Rashid Shaheed.
The Wildcats also return two-time All-American kicker Trey Tuttle, whose strong leg has totaled 61 career field goals.
Oct. 31 in Davis, California
The Aggies appeared to be on the rise when Dan Hawkins’ club reached the FCS quarterfinals in 2018, but took a step backward in 2019 (5-7) after being expected to challenge for the Big Sky title.
UC Davis lost the school’s all-time leading passer Jake Maier to graduation this spring, but returns enough experience to win a few games in 2020.
All-Big Sky running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. will run behind an offensive line that returns four starters, most of its receivers and several starters return on defense, including Nick Eaton, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2019.
UC Davis, which has lost six straight to EWU, did not face the Eagles in 2019.
Nov. 7 at Roos Field
All St. Maries High graduate and former Post Falls High coach Jeff Choate has done in his four years as Montana State’s leader is beat rival Montana four times, reach the second round of the 2018 playoffs and the 2019 semifinals.
Montana State, ranked No. 5 in Athlon’s preseason poll, returns a horde of experience on offense and defense, including starting quarterback Tucker Rovig and running back Isaiah Ifanse.
North Carolina State graduate transfer quarterback Matt McKay, who started five games for the Wolfpack in 2019, will challenge Rovig for the starting job.
The Bobcats’ best-around player, All-American Troy Andersen, who has earned starts at linebacker, running back and quarterback, will sit out the 2020 to recover from an injury, but MSU has plenty of talent on defense, including All-Big Sky defensive end Amandre Williams.
Montana State, which didn’t face EWU in 2019, has lost seven straight to EWU.
Nov. 20 in Hillsboro, Oregon
Portland State, which has had four straight losing seasons and just two winning campaigns in the 2010s, will be experienced: 47 letter winners return, including six starters on offense and five on defense, including first-team All-American defensive back Anthony Adams.
Three-year starting quarterback Davis Alexander is back after throwing for 2,928 yards and 25 touchdowns, completing 57% of his passes. He also rushed for 517 yards and five touchdowns.
The Vikings also return their top two wide receivers in sizable target and All-Big Sky selection Emmanuel Daigbe (All-Big Sky selection) and Davis Koetter, who combined for 1,287 receiving yards in 2019.
Correction: Montana State did not share the 2019 Big Sky Conference title with Weber State, but Sacramento State did. The error has been corrected.
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