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Eastern Washington and its high-powered offense not overlooking Southern Utah as date with Montana looms

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

During their three-game winning streak to start the season, the Eastern Washington Eagles haven’t had trouble moving the ball, on the ground or through the air.

At the same time, last week their opponent didn’t have much trouble, either: In a 62-56 victory, the Eagles held off a Western Illinois offense that scored the game’s final four touchdowns and amassed 643 yards.

On Saturday, the sixth-ranked Eagles head to Cedar City for a 5 p.m. kickoff against Southern Utah, a team that Eagles coach Aaron Best said was “a little bit of a carbon copy” of the Leathernecks they played last week.

In a sense, the Eagles’ defense gets a little bit of a do-over in a game that matters just a little bit more than the previous three, as both teams begin their eight-game Big Sky Conference schedules.

The Eagles’ offense gets an opportunity to prove again that it is among the best in the Football Championship Subdivision.

“Back in high school, I’ve never even been 3-0,” Eagles junior defensive tackle Caleb Davis said Tuesday.

“So it’s a pretty cool feeling, to be 3-0 and to put all the work we’ve been doing behind the scenes on the field and show we’re here, and we’re ready.” Davis added.

Eastern Washington’s offense has been a juggernaut through three games.

The Eagles are second in the FCS in passing offense (414.7 yards per game) and 20th in rushing (208.7), a total that ranks them second overall in the subdivision.

Senior running back Dennis Merritt has been a key part of that, with 326 rushing yards (the second most in the FCS) plus 122 receiving yards and six total touchdowns.

Merritt and quarterback Eric Barriere, whose 1,180 passing yards also rank second nationally, have formed a formidable run-pass duo in a program that has been built on passing.

This week, they’ve been preparing to play a team that is 1-2, with both losses coming to teams from the Bowl Subdivision and a 40-35 victory last week over Tarleton State, a program that made the jump from Division II to FCS last season.

The Thunderbirds gained 459 yards in the victory and are playing at home in Eccles Coliseum for the first time this season.

“In a sense, it’s a little like Western Illinois where all of the sudden, they’re home for the first time,” Best said. “They’re going to be jazzed up.”

Best said he expects the Thunderbirds to try to establish the run to set up a play-action passing game for a quarterback, sophomore Justin Miller, who is not a rushing threat: He has just one carry this season.

“This is an efficient offense,” Best said. “They may not have gaudy numbers year in and year out, but I do think these guys, especially their skill positions, do a really good job of maximizing the potential that they have.”

There is also the game after this one that looms as a potential distraction: On Oct. 2, Eastern is scheduled to host fourth-ranked Montana (2-0) in a matchup that will air nationally on ESPN2.

It presents a similar scenario to the last time the Eagles played in Cedar City, in 2017. The Eagles entered that contest 4-0 in Big Sky play and ranked eighth nationally, with a home game against a one-loss Weber State team scheduled for a week later.

Eastern lost that game 46-28, and then lost 28-20 to Weber State. At 7-4 overall and 6-2 in Big Sky games that season, the Eagles were not invited to the FCS playoffs.

Davis raised that specific scenario on Tuesday.

“I think it’s pretty cool to be on ESPN2, that’s a pretty big deal,” Davis said of the upcoming Montana game. “But we need to worry about (playing) week by week. When you look too far ahead, you forget who you’re playing, and then you start worrying about other things, and then the game plan doesn’t go as you want it.”

Eagles center Conner Crist, who participated in that 2017 game, said he is focused on the Thunderbirds and specifically referred to junior linebacker La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, a first-team All-America selection last spring. He leads Southern Utah in tackles (20) and sacks (two) and also has one interception.

“(K-Davis) is very athletic,” Crist said. “We gotta make sure we know where he is, because he makes plays. They don’t hand out All-America awards to everybody.”

This will be the last Big Sky Conference matchup between Eastern Washington and Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds are moving into the newly formed Western Athletic Conference (now at the FCS level) next season. Eastern leads the all-time series 7-3.

The last time the teams played was in October 2018, a game Eastern won 55-17 at Roos Field. In what was his second career start, Barriere threw for 233 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 98 yards and two more scores.