The second-ranked Eastern Washington Eagles (6-0, 3-0 Big Sky) open a string of three straight home games at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney. First up is a date with the Idaho Vandals (2-3, 1-1). Here are a few aspects to watch:
1. Can the Eagles slow the Vandals’ rushing game? In both of their Big Sky contests, the Vandals have run the ball successfully. In a 27-20 loss at UC Davis, they carried 37 times for 232 yards; in last week’s 42-35 victory against Portland State, they ran 39 times for 236 yards. That’s better than 6 yards per carry. Eagles coach Aaron Best said this week that his team’s defense needs to be stout on first and second downs to put the Vandals in third-and-medium or third-and-long. The Vandals come at defenses with multiple running backs – Elisha Cummings, Aundre Carter and Roshaun Johnson – as well as quarterback Zach Borisch, whose 198 rushing yards are second most on the team. Eastern’s last two opponents have tried to run against the Eagles with mixed success: Northern Colorado gained 110 yards and Montana had 187 on an equal number of carries (39).
2. Will the Eagles outplay the Vandals on special teams? Perhaps the weakest aspect of the Vandals has been the kicking game. They rank 10th in the conference in net kickoffs and last in net punting, which should give the Eagles’ returners, Efton Chism III and Cage Schenck, opportunities for big returns. Idaho also has attempted just three field goals all season – one good, one missed, one blocked – and skipping over such opportunities has contributed to a 4-for-11 conversion rate on fourth downs this season, the lowest percentage in the Big Sky. For the Eagles, redshirt sophomore Seth Harrison opened the season 4 of 9 kicking field goals and then sat out against Montana, presumably to recover from injuries with which Best said the kicker had been dealing. Redshirt freshman Jackson Cleaver went 2 for 2 kicking field goals in that game. Then, against Northern Colorado, Harrison returned to kick field goals (he was 2 for 2), but Cleaver continued to handle kickoff duties (though Harrison did kick off once in the fourth quarter). It remains to be seen whether that’s the way the Eagles split duties going forward.
3. Will Tre Walker disrupt Eric Barriere? The two games Eastern’s star quarterback played against the Vandals last spring were arguably his worst, statistically. In Game 1, he completed 56.1% of his passes; in Game 2, he completed 47.4%. Vandals linebacker Tre Walker had 15 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble in the first game, which the Vandals won, but he was less of a factor in Eastern’s victory later (seven tackles, one hurry). This season, Walker and Washington State transfer Fa’avae Fa’avae have picked up where they left off last spring, and they form a strong linebacker duo in the Vandals defense. Fa’avae missed Idaho’s game against Portland State but could be back to face Eastern. Barriere has handled pressure well, though Montana – a defense with its own strong linebacker corps – sacked him a season-high five times and held him to a season-low 56.5% completion rate. Consider those as the benchmarks any defense will need to meet to slow Barriere and the Eagles offense and pull off an upset victory.
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