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Eastern Washington University Football
Sports >  EWU football

Eastern Washington’s rush defense passes first test with shutdown of Idaho

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 16, 2021

Eastern Washington linebacker Joshua Jerome closes in on Idaho quarterback Zach Borisch during Saturday’s game in Cheney.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Eastern Washington linebacker Joshua Jerome closes in on Idaho quarterback Zach Borisch during Saturday’s game in Cheney. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Justin Reed and </p><p>Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Over a four-week period, Eastern Washington will line up against the top three rushing attacks in the Big Sky Conference.

The first test was Saturday against Idaho, which entered with the third-ranked ground offense in the conference. But the Vandals are unique in the sense they don’t have a go-to back who carries the offense.

Instead, the Vandals focus on getting the ball into the hands of their quarterback, Zach Borisch, and letting him read the defensive gaps. Borisch leads the team in rushing, followed by running back Elisha Cummings.

“He doesn’t throw the ball,” head coach Aaron Best said of Borisch. “When you can minimize the quarterback run game and force someone to do something that the coaches don’t want him to be in a position to do, you’re in a pretty good situation.”

That situation for Borisch is throwing the ball. Borisch entered with just one pass attempt this season and finished 4 of 7 for 58 yards against the Eagles.

Because of that, EWU played almost primarily in its base defense, operating with its three redshirt senior linebackers to fill the box and clog running lanes.

It worked, as the Eagles held down the dynamic Idaho ground attack, allowing 182 rushing yards on 46 carries. Idaho entered averaging 191 yards per game.

The Vandals’ 3.9 yards per rush were well below their season average of 5.4. Taking out Borisch’s 75-yard first-quarter touchdown run, the Vandals had 45 rushes for an average of 2.4 yards

.

“Outside of one long run, I thought our defense dominated the offense that they presented from start to finish,” Best said.

The Eagles have a middle-of-the-pack rushing defense in the Big Sky, allowing a shade less than 150 yards per game and 4 yards a rush.

But they’ll need their front seven to anchor their defense moving forward as they host Montana State (first at 229 yards a game) on Nov. 6 and head to UC Davis (second at 194 yards a game) on Nov. 13.

The big question is, EWU will stick with its three linebackers roaming the middle of the field?

“We’ll mix it up,” Best said. “Depends on the kind of personnel we’re seeing and the personnel that they give us and then who is the quarterback, what kind of schemes they run.”

The constant will be the big men up front who help clear the lanes for the linebackers to crash. Their names don’t show up in the final box scores as much as the players at the second and third levels, but the defensive schemes start with them. They dictate the pocket and the rush lanes.

“They control the gaps tremendously,” linebacker EWU Jusstis Warren said.

“They did a great job … all those guys did a great job being able to fly around and keep us relatively clean on the backside.”

One of those guys is Joshua Jerome, a redshirt sophomore who had eight tackles and two sacks.

He helped Warren and fellow linebackers Jack Sendelbach (12 tackles, two for a loss) and Ty Graham (six tackles) slow the running game.

Idaho’s plan was to try and keep EWU’s offense off the field. With UI’s rushing attack, the opportunity was there, but Eastern ran 79 offensive plays and put up 837 yards.

Vandals coach Paul Petrino conceded the Eagles beat the Vandals up front.

“They beat us in some one-on-ones,” Petrino said.

“I think a lot of it comes down to you have to block, you have to break tackles, you have to win the one-on-ones, and they beat us on some of those one-on-ones.”

Petrino gives UI quarterbacks credit

Despite the loss, Petrino took away some positives from the play of his two quarterbacks, Borisch and true freshman Gevani McCoy.

About McCoy, specifically, Petrino praised his toughness, something he said was “usually the first quality of being a good quarterback.”

“(McCoy) got whacked a couple times and jumped right back up,” Petrino said. “He can really spin it. He’s got a lot of upside.”

McCoy finished 6 of 13 for 59 yards and two interceptions. Borisch, who ran 19 times for 119 yards, attempted just four passes, completing one for 33 yards completed 4 of 7 passes for 58 yards.

Petrino said it was important to play two quarterbacks because of the style Borisch plays.

“Zach ran hard, did some good things,” Petrino said of Borisch, who ran for 205 yards in one game last spring against Eastern. “It wasn’t as easy as last year because it wasn’t a surprise, and he’s a little more banged up now, so you’ve got to use somebody else with Zach right now because he’s taking more hits.”

Special teams, defense dominate for Eastern

For as good as the Eagles’ offense played, Best pointed out how well his team’s defense and special teams performed.

“We had three game plans, in (offense), (defense), special teams, and absolutely dominated that football game,” Best said. “Fun to watch. Fun to be a part of.”

As he did in the past two games of the spring season, freshman Wyatt Hawkins handled kickoff duties for the Eagles.

Of his 11 kicks, nine went for touchbacks. Sophomore Seth Harrison missed his lone field-goal attempt, from 31 yards, but he made all nine of his point-after attempts.

The Eagles’ defense held the Vandals to 3 of 14 on third-down conversion attempts and got interceptions from sophomore Darrien Sampson and redshirt freshman Marlon Jones Jr.

Sophomore tackle Jerome recorded two of the team’s season-high six sacks to boost his team-leading total to five on the year. He also forced a fumble.

The Eagles finished with 11 tackles for loss, their highest total since the opener at UNLV, when they had 14.

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