Call it whatever you want: a money game, a Football Bowl Subdivision game, a 22-more-scholarships game.
Eastern Washington is looking to beat UNLV on Thursday.
“It’s not just one that essentially we’re just getting money for this school,” EWU starting linebacker Ty Graham said. “We’re going (in order) to win at the end of the day. So it’s exciting. It’s almost a standard for us to go into those games and really compete.”
Playing – and occasionally defeating – FBS opponents is a tradition for the Eagles, whose last victory in such a game came four tries ago in 2016 when they beat Washington State 45-42 in Pullman. Four tries before that, they beat 25th-ranked Oregon State 49-46. The Eagles are 10-27 against FBS teams.
But in its past three tries – against Washington, Washington State and Texas Tech – Eastern has lost by an average margin of 38 points.
“We’ve always had confidence going into these games,” said Eagles coach Aaron Best, who was an assistant coach in 2016, the year before he took over as head coach.
“Our mentality is always the same going in: We’re destined to play better in these FBS games,” Best said. “I’ll say that.
“I think we have the crew to do that this year. We’re senior-laden with two senior classes. … But we need to certainly do more to create a better outcome in these games.”
UNLV, which plays in the Mountain West Conference, is coming off a 0-6 season last fall, its first season under coach Marcus Arroyo.
But Graham said the team wasn’t putting much stock in that record.
“When you see that they were winless, we don’t pay much mind to that,” the senior said. “They’re just as hungry and wanna play the game just as hard as we are. So you can’t really wrap your head around that statistic as much as you would want to. Even though it is there, we try not to think about it or talk about it.”
Running back Dennis Merritt agreed.
“We’re gonna go in there and prepare as if they went undefeated last season,” he said.
When the Eagles arrive on Wednesday, they will get their first taste of Allegiant Stadium, the site of Thursday’s contest and also the home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.
For Merritt and some others on the roster, this will be their first visit to an NFL stadium, let alone their first game played in one.
Best said he wants them to enjoy the opportunity.
It’s not a vacation, he said, but neither would he call it a business trip.
“We’re gonna play loose, we always have, and we’ll continue to do so,” Best said. “But they need to enjoy the moment, and they need to enjoy the surroundings and the environment they’re gonna play in (Thursday) night.”
With the disruptions of COVID-19 and the coaching change the year before, getting a read on what the Rebels will do is difficult. As of Tuesday, they had yet to name a starting quarterback between sophomores Doug Brumfield or Justin Rogers.
Last year, Brumfield and Rogers each played in two of UNLV’s six games.
The Rebels’ offense ranked 10th among 12 Mountain West teams in yards per game, and their defense ranked 11th in the same category.
In contrast, the Eagles fielded the Big Sky Conference’s best offense last spring and its third-best defense among the eight teams to play more than two games.
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