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Sports >  EWU football

Dan Thompson: With Idaho improved across the board, Eastern Washington can’t let rivalry loss become commonplace

Nov. 5, 2022 Updated Sat., Nov. 5, 2022 at 7 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – At the end of his time answering postgame questions from the media, first-year Idaho coach Jason Eck pointed out the trophy on the desk in front of him.

Stuck on it was a piece of athletic tape with the name “Che-Scow Cup” written in all caps.

The “Che” refers to the home of Eastern Washington, the “Scow” to the home of the Vandals, a playful portmanteau that may or may not stick. “The Governor’s Cup” apparently felt a little stale as a moniker.

Whether this rivalry’s trophy gets a new name, though, is immaterial. What is crucial is that Eck and the Vandals injected it with significantly more juice on Saturday in a 48-16 trouncing of the Eagles at the Kibbie Dome that will understandably raise some concerns among Eagles followers.

It’s not so much the singular result as it is the way it contrasted with Eastern’s 71-21 rout last year in Cheney.

The Vandals looked much better in not just one phase but in every phase: Idaho seemingly gained more return yards in just this game than the Eagles had all season; the Vandals’ offense rolled for 531 yards; and the Eagles’ offense stalled early when it couldn’t afford to do so and sputtered through the rest of a one-sided game.

And it wouldn’t be all that reasonable to think this would have gone differently if Eric Barriere were playing quarterback as he was last year, because Idaho is so obviously improved across the board and the Eagles are so clearly not.

But this at least is clear: Eastern cannot let this become a two-year doldrum. This has to be a one-and-done downturn, a blip on their glimmering historical record.

This was a big, emotional game for the Vandals, who only once in the history of the rivalry had defeated the Eagles by more than the 32 points they beat them by on Saturday.

“This is a big game for us seniors,” said Idaho receiver Hayden Hatten, who tied the program record with four touchdown receptions, all of them in the first half, and beat the Eagles for the third time in five games. “This was a big game for us in the fact that this is your next-door neighbor. I think it’s the closest schools in the Big Sky, so naturally we’re rivals. This game means a lot.”

The teams have only played six times since the Vandals rejoined the Big Sky, and they’ve now split them. Say what you will about the Vandals’ yo-yo relationship with the FBS, they now boast some of the best facilities in the FCS, and a loud, well-lit Kibbie Dome is an asset to their competitiveness.

From a recruiting standpoint, too, a winning team in Moscow presents what must be an attractive offer: an affable, successful coach; a great FCS arena; a redshirt freshman quarterback in Gevani McCoy who is a proven winner already; and the chance to play on a team that is probably one win away from being a playoff team.

Eck and his staff are demonstrating, too, what a difference coaching can make. Last year, with a similar corps, the Vandals finished 4-7. They’re already 6-3 this year overall and 5-1 in arguably the best conference in the FCS.

EWU coach Aaron Best said as much himself, that “nucleus-wise (the Vandals) are all the same.”

So the question then turns to Eastern Washington (2-7, 1-5 Big Sky), and whether it can lean on its own nucleus of returners to rebound next year after what will be its first losing season since 2006.

The most crucial piece is the development of redshirt freshman quarterback Kekoa Visperas, who popped in for a handful of series to spell senior Gunner Talkington.

Best said that coaches had talked about playing Visperas over the past few weeks but that such a decision was going to be made based on the circumstances.

Last week, as Talkington led the Eagles nearly back to victory over Portland State – a game that, had the Eagles won, would have kept alive their hopes of a winning season – was not the time to send in Visperas.

But Saturday was. And Visperas needs more reps.

It’s also unreasonable to think that the team’s struggles this year can fall entirely at the feet of Talkington, a quarterback who had the impossible task of replacing Barriere and who had to do so facing a schedule that was harder than any Barriere faced in his three-plus years as a starter.

A winnable home game against Tennessee State, which the Eagles won. But then at Oregon. Then home against Montana State. At Florida. At Weber State. Home against Sacramento State. All losses.

Spread out those games across a season and pepper in matchups with teams like Cal Poly (which Eastern beat) and Northern Colorado (their season finale), plus Idaho State or Northern Arizona (neither of which the Eagles play), and this season might play out much differently.

With this schedule, 2022 was going to be a difficult year for the Eagles.

Add to that the graduation of one of the program’s best offensive linemen in Tristen Taylor, top receivers in Talolo Limu-Jones and Andrew Boston, and the linebacker duo of Jack Sendelbach and Ty Graham, after peaking at 10-3 last season, this year looked like a rebuilding year anyway.

It got no easier when injuries sidelined three of the Eagles’ most important defensive players – safety Anthany Smith, linebacker Ahmani Williams and defensive tackle Josh Jerome – for multiple games this year.

That doesn’t entirely excuse the abysmal run defense this season, nor does it absolve the coaches of questions about whether their running game – led by promising redshirt freshman Tuna Altahir – has been abandoned too soon. Their special teams, aside from the play of punter Nick Kokich, have been unreliable at best.

But when a team hasn’t had a losing season in 16 years, when it has won a national title, when its current roster literally hasn’t played a game without playoff implications its entire career at Eastern until now, that’s a program that deserves a mulligan.

“It’s just not our year thus far,” Best said. “We just haven’t done enough special things in moments where we need to do it.”

That, better than anything else, encapsulates the 2022 football season for Eastern Washington. But it cannot also encapsulate next year’s team.

The Che-Scow Cup isn’t everything. But Saturday’s result is an indicator that the Vandals are on the rise, and the Eagles don’t want to be the team whose place gets taken in the upper echelon of the Big Sky.

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