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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

EWU notebook: Defense puts together best performance when needed the most

Weber State Wildcats wide receiver Treyshun Hurry (18) makes a catch against Eastern Washington Eagles cornerback Alphonse Oywak (36) in the first half at Roos Field on Sat. Oct. 21, 2023 in Cheney WA.  (James Snook/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington produced its best defensive performance of the Big Sky season in Saturday’s 31-23 victory over Weber State on Saturday at Roos Field, and in doing so relied on the return of a senior and the emergence of a freshman.

Senior captain Darrien Sampson returned to the field for the first time in a year, making a pair of tackles from the cornerback position opposite senior Marlon Jones Jr.

“We’ve been waiting for (Sampson) to be able to feel comfortable and healthy,” senior linebacker Ben Allen said. “Everybody respects the heck out of him. It was great to see him out there tonight. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get more and more snaps.”

Perhaps the most notable play was made by true freshman Derek Ganter Jr., who hadn’t appeared in a game this season. In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, with Weber State facing fourth-and-8 at Eastern’s 16-yard line, Ganter broke up a pass intended for Hayden Meacham to secure Eastern’s victory.

“Ganter, he’s going to be a dude here,” said Allen, who had six tackles. “He’s a good player, and you just saw a glimpse of it tonight. That kid can play. Eastern’s going to be excited for him in the coming years.”

Ganter is the latest in a string of underclassmen that has taken over prominent roles on the defense. Redshirt sophomore Kentrell Williams Jr. had six tackles, including one for loss. DaJean Wells and Armani Orange, two more redshirt sophomores, made their third and seventh starts, respectively – although Orange left with an injury that allowed Ganter to make his debut.

The Eagles also benefited from the return of junior defensive tackle Matthew Brown, who had a sack in his second game back from injury, and the play of four freshmen (two redshirts) playing along the defensive line: Isaiah Perez, Justis La’ulu, Jaden Radke and Ben Voigtlaender.

Against the Wildcats, Eastern allowed 369 yards, 203 less than it did last week to Idaho State and 132 less than it gave up to Idaho the game before.

Eagles win special teams

Unlike previous matchups against Weber State in which the Wildcats converted on fake punts and flipped field position in the return game, the Eagles were the ones with the trick plays.

On the 17th play of an EWU drive in the first half, holder Efton Chism III took a snap, set the ball for Soren McKee to kick – and then abruptly got up and dashed toward the end zone. He gained 8 yards, 1 yard shy of the goal line, and on the next play Tuna Altahir got the last yard for a touchdown. McKee’s extra point gave Eastern a 14-3 lead.

“We’ve been burned many times by these guys,” Best said of the Wildcats. “… A couple coaches put that together. (Weber State) gave us a look that we anticipated, and it was executed flawlessly. It was something that we saw and exposed, and you need to have those things in these games.”

Those points proved crucial as the game unfolded, as the Wildcats drove for a touchdown on the next drive and then, early in the fourth quarter, took a 20-17 lead.

The Wildcats played without All-America cornerback and returner Abraham Williams, who earlier this season returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Clarence Butler handled all six kickoff returns; his longest gained 30 yards.

Eastern, meanwhile, had the longest such return of the game when Michael Wortham brought one back 37 yards.

The Eagles’ lone made field goal was by redshirt sophomore Jackson Cleaver, who made a 44-yard attempt in the third quarter. It was his first attempt of the season.

Eagles protect football

For the fourth game in a row, the Eagles did not turn the ball over. For the first time this season, that coincided with their opponent doing the same.

On the season, Eastern is plus-4 in the turnover ratio.

Its last turnover came against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 16, a game the Eagles won 40-29.

Entering play on Saturday, Montana State was the only Big Sky team with fewer turnovers (three) than Eastern Washington.

The last time Eastern played a game in which neither team turned the ball over was on Aug. 31, 2019, in a 47-14 loss at Washington.