If it wasn’t a rivalry before – the term appears to be subjective among different generations of Eastern Washington and Idaho purists – it’s headed that way.
Idaho’s 35-27 upset of EWU at the Kibbie Dome 17 months ago was the Vandals’ prized gem in a bag-of-coal (5-7) season.
For EWU, a Football Championship Subdivision power with 13 consecutive winning seasons, the loss was the turning point in its underachieving (7-5, no playoffs) season.
Idaho, which has posted two losing campaigns since dropping down to the Big Sky Conference in 2018, got a taste of its former I-AA (FCS) glory when it beat the Eagles, something it regularly did in the 1980s and 1990s before making the leap to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
EWU, which has been eying vindication since its 2019 postseason miss, gets to start its revenge door where its rare Big Sky woes started: Moscow, Idaho.
It took a six-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic and a schedule truncated to six regular games, but the rare winter/spring season begins Saturday when the No. 12 Eagles open up at Idaho in the warm confines of the Vandals’ dome.
They’ll lock up again in a regular-season finale in Cheney on April 10 when the Eagles will likely have their head coach in attendance.
Fourth-year EWU coach Aaron Best won’t be available for the Eagles on Saturday, though, after testing positive for the coronavirus this week.
It marked a strange start to an already strange season on an even stranger date.
But as long as three-year EWU starting quarterback Eric Barriere – the preseason All-Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year – is on the field, the Eagles like their chances.
Barriere and several experienced skill players return to Moscow to face a Vandals front seven that’s widely deemed as one of the best in the Big Sky. It gave the dual-threat senior plenty of trouble in their last meeting.
“I expect them to be ready,” Barriere said. “They have a good team, some good linebackers. Real physical.”
Idaho has three standout linebackers in Christian Elliss (All-American), Tre Walker (All-Big Sky) and Charles Akanno, who look to blow past an EWU offensive line that returns one starter.
EWU was without its two primary linebackers in the 2019 – Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach – and a punishing rushing attack combined with an aerial threat in current San Diego Chargers receiver Jeff Cotton was too much for the Eagles.
Ojoh and Sendelbach appear to be ready, as well as ex-Idaho starting linebacker Ty Graham, but the Vandals, who also return several experienced running backs and receivers, will have a much different offensive look.
Mike Beaudry, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound graduate transfer from Connecticut, takes over at quarterback after replacing the coach’s son, Mason Petrino, who graduated in 2020.
“They brought it against us last time,” said EWU defensive coordinator and associate head coach Eti Ena, who will likely be the interim head coach in Best’s absence.
“But a lot has changed. We watch film, but nobody has really played. We have an idea of what to expect, but we will know more Saturday.”
Idaho still plans to be a physical, run-first team, but the strong-armed Beaudry, who led NCAA Division II West Florida to a national title game before transferring to UConn, where he battled injuries, adds another dimension for Idaho coach Paul Petrino.
Petrino, in Idaho’s return to the Big Sky in 2018, watched Barriere run around the Vandals in a 38-14 win at Roos Field in Cheney before bottling him and keeping him off the field in the first half in 2019, when Idaho jumped out to 28-0 lead.
Barriere, fifth in Walter Payton Award voting in 2019, has 73 total touchdowns in 30 games and over 7,500 total yards.
“He has got to be one of the best players in the country, no question,” Petrino said of Barriere this week. “He can extend plays, make plays with his feet, can throw it anywhere on the field. It’s all about him.”
Petrino feels the teams have a rivalry, although they have faced each other just four times in the 2000s.
“It will be two teams that don’t like each other very much,” Petrino said.
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