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Eastern Washington University Football

Eastern Washington has chance to reverse trend with home game against Weber State

Eastern Washington Eagles quarterback Jared Taylor (15) celebrates a touchdown against the Idaho Vandals in the second half at Roos Field on Sat. Sept. 30, 2023, in Cheney.  (James Snook/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

For as much as Eastern Washington’s football team has had an edge the past decade over UC Davis, which it beat earlier this year, and Idaho State, which it lost to last week, the Eagles have had no such luck recently against their opponent Saturday, Weber State.

Aaron Best-led Eagles teams have defeated every other Big Sky Conference team at least once over the past six-plus years. But the recent history between EWU and Weber State includes four consecutive Eagles losses dating back to their last win, in 2015.

That’s a history the Eagles will try to reverse when they kick off at 4 p.m. at Roos Field in Cheney.

Weber State has been the class of the conference since 2015, with postseason appearances in five of the past six years. A big reason for that was the coaching of Jay Hill, whom Best praised during his media availability on Tuesday. Hill is now BYU’s defensive coordinator.

“I have a ton of respect for what coach Hill did taking over that program,” Best said, “because they were not good about eight or 10 years ago. Not good at all. And he made them really good.”

He made them really good in all phases of the game, but especially on special teams and defense, Best said.

Recent history between EWU and Weber bears that out. Eastern’s usually high-powered offense has scored 20, six, 34 and 21 points in the four most recent games, losing by a combined score of 122-81. The 2018 team that lost 14-6 in Ogden, Utah, never scored fewer than 24 points in any other game that season.

But the Eagles (2-4, 1-2 Big Sky), despite a wrenching loss last week at Idaho State, are not all that concerned about the past when they look at the Wildcats (3-4, 1-3), who, like the Eagles, are desperate for a victory.

What the Eagles see of this year’s Weber State team is concerning enough.

“Watching the film, you wouldn’t think they are 3-4,” EWU senior defensive lineman Jacob Newsom said Tuesday. “They’re a good team. They’ve got a good offensive line, good skill players. So it’s exciting, because we get to correct wrongs from the past.”

Newsom was referring to the last time Eastern hosted Weber State, a 35-34 Wildcats win in 2021 that ended Eastern’s 20-game home winning streak, which began after the Wildcats’ win at Roos Field in 2017.

In that 35-34 win, Weber State converted three fake punts into first downs on three plays: a direct snap to an upback, a run, and a pass by punter Mackenzie Morgan.

To top it off, Eastern missed a game-tying extra point with 2:51 left after Dennis Merritt’s 1-yard touchdown.

Last year in Ogden, the teams were tied at 21 midway through the third quarter, but the seventh-ranked Wildcats scored the game’s final 24 points to finish a 45-21 victory that dropped Eastern’s record to 1-4.

This year’s Weber State team, under first-year head coach Mickey Mental, hasn’t been as potent on offense, but it has been just about as smothering on defense.

“They have some of the same dudes (and they) have only gotten better,” EWU senior tight end Blake Gobel said. “They play us tough and hard. They always do.”

The defense is led by junior linebacker Winston Reid, the preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year who has lived up to those expectations. He leads the conference with 77 tackles, including eight for a loss. Teammate Brayden Wilson, a redshirt sophomore, leads the conference with 11.5 tackles for loss and has 35 tackles overall.

The Wildcats have as many interceptions (seven) as the Eagles, tied for second in the Big Sky behind Montana (11). Weber State’s 17 sacks are second most in the conference, although they have played one game more than leader Montana State (20).

On offense, while the Wildcats rank last in the Big Sky in passing, they still boast the conference’s second-leading rusher in junior Damon Bankston, who has 388 rushing yards on 64 carries. Senior Kris Jackson has carried another 67 times for 288 yards.

Last year, the Wildcats had 223 rushing yards against Eastern, slightly more than the Eagles have allowed per game this year (217.5).

“They’re physical offensively, (with) a big offensive line,” EWU senior defensive end Brock Harrison said during media availability this week. “They want to get their running game going.”

But the Eagles also have found their offensive rhythm: Redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas threw for 403 yards last week against Idaho State, and the Eagles are fourth in the Big Sky in scoring average (30.8) and third in yards per game (410.5).

“They try to control the ball, they try to run the ball, so you’re pitting a usually pretty good, explosive offense at Eastern against a really good defense at Weber,” Best said. “Something’s gotta give.”