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Eastern Washington University Football

Eastern Washington ground attack steps up in win against Weber State 31-23

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

In the middle of the week, it became apparent that Eastern Washington’s backfield was going to be shorthanded, so head coach Aaron Best approached Tuna Altahir and told him to prepare to be a three-down back against the Weber State Wildcats.

“Coach Best told me (to) be ready to basically take every snap that (had) personnel with the running back in,” the redshirt sophomore Altahir said. “I knew (the ball) was coming my way.”

But handing the ball to Altahir was just one aspect of the plan drawn up by EWU offensive coordinator Jim Chapin.

Whether the Wildcats anticipated the plan, for the most part they contained it.

But in the end, they could not stop it.

Without running backs Justice Jackson and Malik Dotson, the Eagles turned to Altahir and a trio of quarterbacks to grind out 192 rushing yards and defeat the Wildcats 31-23 on homecoming night on Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney.

It ended the Wildcats’ four-game run of victories in the series, one that included bookend losses around Eastern’s 20-game home winning streak from 2017 to 2021.

“Coach Chapin gets a lot of credit for getting those guys on board, believing in all the schemes and all the things,” Best said, “because we threw a lot at ourselves this week to manufacture a run game, because it wasn’t going to be easy.”

Redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas was the only Eastern quarterback to attempt any passes, and he was efficient: He connected on 20 of 27 attempts, which gained 228 yards and included a touchdown to Altahir.

Altahir finished with a team-high 64 receiving yards on four receptions and ran 13 times for 61 yards and another score.

Visperas – who also ran for a touchdown – frequently ceded the backfield to junior Jared Taylor, who rushed 17 times for 79 yards, and to junior Michael Wortham, who ran eight times for 40 yards.

There was even one possession in which Visperas, Taylor and Wortham lined up in the backfield together.

“I don’t know if anybody in the country has ever had that,” said Best, who has been at Eastern Washington as a player, assistant and head coach for nearly three decades. “It’s what we had to lean on. Justice Jackson was unavailable. We were trying to do what we could with what we had.”

They also leaned on Altahir and junior tight end Austin York to be lead blockers as Taylor, time and again, took a snap and found gaps in Weber State’s defense.

There were no massive gains. Eastern’s longest run went for just 16 yards, but the Eagles wore down the Wildcats with five drives that lasted at least eight plays and two that went for 18. One such drive came in the first half, and then another one – the game’s most crucial – came in the second.

After Kyle Thompson’s 34-yard field goal got Weber State within 24-23 with 10 minutes, 21 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Eastern began a drive that gained 84 yards and ate up 8:40 of the clock.

It included a conversion on third-and-8 when junior receiver Nolan Ulm gained 11 yards on a reception between a quadrant of defenders, getting the Eagles into Weber State territory. Ulm finished with five catches for 60 yards.

After another third-down conversion three plays later, the Eagles faced a fourth-and-2 from the Weber State 22. Taylor took a direct snap and got 3 yards on the right side of Weber State’s defense, and from there, he gained 10 yards on the next three plays to set up the Eagles with first-and-goal from the 9.

Three plays later, Taylor scored on a 3-yard touchdown run, and Soren McKee’s extra point gave the Eagles a 31-23 lead. Weber State’s subsequent drive ended on an incomplete pass in Eastern’s red zone.

Though healthy, Taylor didn’t play in last week’s 42-41 loss at Idaho State. But on Saturday, in the second half especially, the Eagles ran an offense that resembled what they ran two games ago against Idaho, when Visperas was unavailable due to an injury. In that game, Taylor gained 121 rushing yards on 22 carries and scored twice.

But the hybrid approach against the Wildcats helped Eastern achieve 26 first downs, possess the ball for more than 34 minutes and convert 10 of 16 times on third and fourth downs.

The victory boosted Eastern’s record to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in Big Sky play. Weber State’s loss dropped the Wildcats to 3-5 and 1-4, effectively eliminating them from FCS playoff contention.

Next up for Eastern is a game at Portland State (3-4, 2-2), which lost to Idaho State (3-4, 3-1) 38-24 earlier Saturday afternoon.

“It’s been a long time since we beat Weber,” said Best, who did so for the first time as a head coach, “so we’re going to appreciate this one for 24 (hours).”