It is Idaho week for the Eastern Washington football team, and senior linebacker Ty Graham is being watched carefully by his Eagles teammates.
“Sometimes we crack jokes about people spying on us,” Eagles freshman cornerback Marlon Jones Jr. said Tuesday, “and we’ve got to keep Ty’s family members away from the team, because they know people at Idaho.”
Graham, a Cheney High School graduate now in his third season with Eastern Washington, played his former team, the Idaho Vandals, twice last season. And while Jones was clearly joking, the No. 2 Eagles (6-0 overall, 3-0 Big Sky) are preparing dutifully for a Vandals team (2-3, 1-1) that has given them more trouble than most Big Sky opponents have in the last few seasons.
The two programs will renew their rivalry at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Roos Field.
“It’s been a battle the last three times we’ve faced them,” said Eagles coach Aaron Best. “They’re coached well. They’re coached hard. They play for each other. You can tell that on film.”
Idaho beat Eastern 35-27 in 2019 in Moscow, handing the Eagles a loss that didn’t count in the Big Sky standings but surely dented their playoff resume – a resume that did not get them to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Last spring, the teams played twice. Idaho won the opener, 28-21 in Moscow, a game in which Best didn’t actually coach. He tested positive for COVID-19 leading up to the game and instead watched it from home.
Five games later, Eastern won the rematch in Cheney, 38-31, but the Eagles needed a fourth-quarter comeback to do so.
The only other team to beat Eastern twice in the last four years is Weber State, the reigning four-time conference champion.
Jones pointed out, though, that their last two matchups with the Vandals took place in an abnormal year, and that because of COVID-19 protocols some players weren’t available. That was true for both teams, and notably the Vandals played the most recent game with Zach Borisch, then their fifth-stringer, at quarterback.
Yet Best said that before the spring season started, he and Vandals coach Paul Petrino discussed that they wanted to try to play at all costs, and Best credited Petrino for making that game happen.
But making such adjustments is different in-game than in the week leading up to it, and both Best and Jones mentioned how valuable it is that they have film of the Vandals – from those two games last year as well as from games against other teams so far this fall.
In their 42-35 victory over Portland State last week, the Vandals used two quarterbacks, Mike Beaudry and Borisch. Beaudry mostly threw the ball – he finished 10 of 15 for 162 yards and a touchdown – whereas Borisch mostly ran, carrying 16 times for 83 yards and a score.
“They’re dynamic in different ways,” Best said of the quarterbacks, “and certainly we need to be registering who is in the game at the time they’re in the game because of what they do, respectively.”
Aside from the 62-56 victory at Western Illinois, the most yardage Eastern’s defense has allowed this year is the 358 against Montana, and the Eagles now rank fifth in the Big Sky in total defense. Idaho is one spot below them at No. 6.
The Eagles are expecting that opponents will be particularly motivated to play them, largely because of the No. 2 ranking attached to Eastern right now.
“When you start winning, teams want to be where you are,” Eagles junior tight end Dylan Ingram said. “A lot of people can get complacent, and that’s what coach Best and the other coaches stress is, don’t read into that. Don’t read into the polls or this or that. We’ve got to keep doing us.”
Against Northern Colorado last week, the Eagles took charge of the game early, scoring touchdowns on their first five drives. They did so without leading receiver Talolo Limu-Jones, who was injured against Montana two games ago.
Limu-Jones, a senior, is still third in the Big Sky in receiving yards (576) and fifth in yards per catch (16.9). Best said he is “day to day at this point” and “probably a game-time decision” to play Saturday against the Vandals.
Jones said the team’s confidence level is high, but like Ingram, he knows to expect the Vandals’ very best.
“I just think it’s important not to feed in too much to media or people telling us ‘good job’ or stuff like that,” Jones said. “Then you get complacent and you just think that nobody can touch you. Especially with last year how they beat us, I think it’s important to remember stuff like that. Any given week, anyone can beat you.”
BIG SKY notebook (9) Montana State, (19) Weber State set to clash on ESPNU. Page 4
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