After defeating a Football Bowl Subdivision team and an NCAA Division II squad, the seventh-ranked Eastern Washington Eagles head east this week for their first matchup this season against another Football Championship Subdivision team, Western Illinois.
It’s a team the Eagles (2-0) were scheduled to host last season, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic that game at Roos Field was rescheduled for 2025.
Saturday’s matchup at 1 p.m. will be the first between the two programs, and the Eagles – who will begin their eight-game Big Sky Conference slate the following weekend – are looking to go 3-0 for the first time since 2007.
Such a feat is made more difficult because so often the Eagles schedule at least one – and sometimes, like next season, two – FBS teams each year. Partially that is a financial decision, as those “guarantee” games lead to payouts for FCS teams like Eastern.
But it’s also a competitive one, Eagles coach Aaron Best said Tuesday.
“We’re willing to play anybody anywhere, and we’ve done that over the course of time,” Best said. “It doesn’t mean we’re gonna be perfect. It doesn’t mean we’re gonna be undefeated when you come out of the nonconference slate. But I think getting out of conference in challenging ways helps you, especially now with the myriad of teams that are really, really good in this conference.”
How challenging this matchup will be for the Eagles is a little unclear. Western Illinois is 0-2, having lost 31-21 to Ball State of the FBS, a game in which the Leathernecks outgained the Cardinal 437-404 and were tied midway through the third quarter.
But then the Leathernecks lost 42-7 at fourth-ranked Montana, which held WIU without an offensive touchdown.
Just as the Washington Huskies did in the season opener against Montana, the Leathernecks struggled to run the ball against the Grizzlies, as their running backs carried 19 times for 67 yards. Montana’s defense also recorded six sacks against Western Illinois.
“There’s things we need to work on, but again it’s also a credit to Montana,” WIU coach Jared Elliott said on his coach’s show Monday. “There’s a reason they have the defense they do.”
For its part, Eastern’s defense has generated pressure in both its games so far, including five sacks against UNLV and four quarterback hurries against Central Washington. A big reason for that has been senior linebacker Ty Graham, who leads the defense with 20 tackles and has one sack and one interception.
“I think he does it all pretty well,” Eagles linebacker Cale Lindsay said of Graham after Saturday’s victory. “He’s confident, and that spreads through the whole defense. He can really take charge, and that’s what you need from linebackers.”
The Leathernecks’ primary offensive threat has been receiver Dennis Houston, who has 17 catches for 280 yards and two touchdowns this season. Most of that (237 yards) came against Ball State.
Eagles linebacker Ahmani Williams said from what he’s seen of WIU, he expects the Leathernecks to try to misdirect the Eagles’ defense with motion and to get them out of position.
“They’re gonna do a lot up front with a lot of motions and stuff, trying to get our eyes wrong,” the freshman Williams said. “But the biggest thing is sticking to the game plan, doing our job, staying disciplined.”
On the other side of the ball, WIU’s defense doesn’t have a sack through its first two games, but it has still been able to force five turnovers, including four at Montana.
The Leathernecks’ only score last week came on a 75-yard interception return by Michael Lawson, who also leads the team with 28 tackles and three forced fumbles.
“That’s what we expect out of Mike,” Elliott said. “He’s an elite competitor, and he plays the game with the right passion and emotional energy that’s contagious to our defense, but we’ve just got to collectively as a whole play with more consistency.”
While Eagles quarterback Eric Barriere threw two interceptions at UNLV, he didn’t throw any against Central. The Eagles also have a history of gaining big chunks of yards on offense, something Elliott said his team was emphasizing this week in practice.
“Well, if anything is the most important, it’s eliminating explosive plays,” Elliott said, “and that’s what these guys thrive on. … You’ve gotta understand when you’re playing a team like Eastern Washington, they’re gonna move the ball.”
• Against Central Washington, center Conner Crist became the fourth Eastern Washington offensive lineman to score a touchdown in team history. The others are Troy Esera in 2002, Tim Trout (1990) and Rich Sando (1984).
• The Eagles have played at least one FBS team each season since 1995, and next year they are scheduled to play two: at Oregon and at Florida. The Florida game was originally scheduled for Sept. 7, 2020. In 2023, they are scheduled to play at Fresno State.
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