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Eastern Washington University Football

Eastern Washington’s rotating quarterbacks help unlock improved rushing attack

Eastern Washington running back Justice Jackson hits the hole against Portland State last Saturday in Hillsboro, Ore.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Early on during spring practices, it was clear to Brandon Johnson-Farrell that Eastern Washington’s football team was going to find a way to use its two new junior transfer quarterbacks, Michael Wortham and Jared Taylor.

Both could run and throw the football. But how to make it work?

That took some time.

But eight games in – with a ninth on Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney against Cal Poly – the Eagles (3-5 overall, 2-3 Big Sky) have found a way to use all three of their quarterbacks. It has added a new dynamic to Eastern Washington’s offense, which has steadily recovered its scoring prowess after a significant dip last season.

“(In spring) you saw flashes of them making big-time plays,” said Johnson-Farrell, the Eagles’ running backs coach. “Now that we’ve identified roles for them, now they’re in the flow, man. They’re feeling it.”

Since the first game of the season against North Dakota State, Wortham has been Eastern’s primary kick returner. At 24.8 yards per return, he ranks fourth in the Big Sky.

But the Eagles have also used Wortham as a quarterback who usually runs and even as a running back next to either redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas or Jared Taylor. It is a look akin to the offenses of other Big Sky teams over the years, not so much like the offense Eastern Washington became known for in the past decade.

Through eight games, Wortham has the third-most rushing yards (255) and the most rushing touchdowns (five) on the team. And he has thrown enough – he’s 4 of 7 on the year – to make defenses notice.

Add to that the threat of Taylor, who has the fourth-most rushing yards on the team (215), plus Visperas’ ability to run (he has 115 yards, a figure that includes the times he’s been sacked), and the Eagles have a three-headed quarterback group for which opponents need to account.

“Now that we’ve done it for a couple weeks, this last week especially, the (Portland State) defensive line, they were yelling out who the QB was every play,” EWU senior guard Luke Dahlgren said.

Ever since Taylor spot-started for Visperas against Idaho on Sept. 30 – when Taylor also went 10 for 23 for 92 yards as a passer – the Eagles have been finding ways to get all three quarterbacks on the field, which means teams have plenty of film to watch as they prepare for Eastern.

But even that is something the Eagles are trying to use to their advantage.

“You want them to have to read as many reads as you can give them and have them not know where the ball is going: Who’s going to be throwing it, who’s going to be running it, ” Dahlgren said. “It’s a lot of stuff to confuse them.”

During Aaron Best’s tenure as head coach, which began in 2017, Eastern has had quarterbacks who were capable of running. In 2018 and 2019, for example, Eric Barriere averaged 41 and 46.5 yards per game, respectively. In the years that followed, those numbers tapered to 20.5 and 17 as Barriere spent more time in the pocket – and to great effect, as Barriere finished second in the FCS in passing yards.

Last season, though, Gunner Talkington averaged even fewer rushing yards (13.1) as Eastern’s points per game dropped to 24.6, down 20 points from the year before and down 13 from the 37.7 points the Eagles averaged during the shortened 2020-21 season.

This year, the Eagles’ offense has rebounded to score an average of 31.4 points per game and 35.8 since Taylor started playing four games ago.

“I think a little bit of that was learning what these guys do well and molding the offense to their skill set,” Johnson-Farrell said. “We’re trying to make our offense as dynamic (as possible).”

Add to that the play of their running backs – redshirt sophomore Tuna Altahir and junior Justice Jackson – and the Eagles are averaging 160.3 rushing yards per game, sixth best in the Big Sky and better than they have in any year since 2019, when they averaged 207.8 (19th most in the FCS).

Altahir and Jackson have similar bodies and base skill sets, Johnson-Farrell said, but the team has also leaned into their unique strengths.

Altahir, for example, is “more of a downhill guy,” Johnson-Farrell said, whereas Jackson is more likely to make a defender miss.

That has led the Eagles to start Altahir and use Jackson as a change of pace. Statistically, Jackson has been the better runner, gaining 384 yards at an average of 6.3 yards per carry. He also has four touchdowns and is coming off a 126-yard effort in Saturday’s 47-35 loss to Portland State, a career single-game high for him.

But a big reason for that success is the work Altahir does, Johnson-Farrell said.

“The stats don’t do right by Tuna,” Johnson-Farrell said, referring to Altahir’s 3.3 yards-per-carry average and 296 total rushing yards. “A lot of his carries come earlier in drives, earlier in the game, and he does a good job wearing the defenses down. Not that Justice doesn’t, but he’s the one that takes advantage after Tuna’s smashed away at them for a couple of series. Tuna’s bruising style takes a toll on a defense.”

The Eagles have also employed tight end Austin York as a lead blocker, adding another role to the versatile junior’s repertoire.

“I would trust (York) to do everything on the football field,” Johnson-Farrell said. “You need him to play safety, and he’ll (do it).”

Jackson said another reason for the offenses’ improvement is a simple one: time. Seven of the team’s starters also started last year, including four of the five offensive linemen.

“Last year, our offense was really green. It was super young,” Jackson said. “The reason we’re better on offense is we’re gelling and growing together.”

Now Eastern’s challenge is to win out, starting against Cal Poly (3-5, 1-4), which Best said earlier this week has improved much over the past two seasons when it went a combined 4-18.

After this game comes a road contest at Montana State (6-2, 4-1), followed by the season finale at home against Northern Arizona (3-5, 3-2).

“It’s every week at a time,” Dahlgren said. “We haven’t played up to our full potential.

“The record isn’t what we’d like it to be, but all we can do is play a good game this week against Cal Poly. Then the next week after that, and the next week after that.”