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In a matchup of ranked teams, Eastern Washington hosts Idaho in pivotal Big Sky Conference game

Idaho Vandals quarterback Gevani McCoy is chased out of the pocket by Eastern Washington Eagles defensive lineman Matthew Brown in the first half at the Kibbie Dome on Nov. 5, 2022, in Moscow, Idaho.  (James Snook/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

It was two years ago when it was clear, just a couple of drives into the game, that the Idaho Vandals were completely outclassed by Eastern Washington’s football team.

Under the guidance of future Walter Payton Award winner Eric Barriere, the Eagles scored touchdowns on their first seven drives – interrupted only by a two-play drive that preceded halftime – as they built a 50-14 lead in the game’s first 35 minutes.

By game’s end, the score was 71-21 and quarterback Barriere had set the program’s single-game record with 600 passing yards.

Last year, though, it was the Eagles who looked outclassed.

In their first year with Jason Eck as coach, the playoff-bound Vandals were the ones who jumped ahead big, leading 38-10 through the games first 37 minutes. By game’s end, the score was 48-16.

No other games in the series’ previous 14 have been as lopsided as those two results.

But a one-sided affair in either direction would be a much more surprising outcome Saturday when they renew their regional rivalry at 1 p.m. at Roos Field.

With a 3-1 overall record and a 1-0 mark in Big Sky play, Idaho is ranked fourth in the FCS Stats Perform Top 25. For the first time this season, the No. 19 Eagles (2-2, 1-0) are also ranked.

“I will say this: When both teams are good, that makes the game better,” EWU coach Aaron Best said Tuesday during his media availability. “It really does, for all involved. It makes it more intriguing.”

Best said the Eagles have “a ton of work to do” to get ready for the Vandals, a team he said doesn’t readily show any weaknesses.

“(Idaho is a) scary team. Scary coaching staff,” Best said. “They do what they do and do it well, and they stay to what they intend to do and don’t get too far from it.”

Best said, however, that Eastern has the advantage of being at home.

The Eagles have won the past three matchups in Cheney, all since Best became head coach in 2017. The inverse is also true: The Eagles have lost to the Vandals in Moscow every time they’ve played there under Best.

Since the start of the 2017 season, the Eagles are 25-7 at Roos Field, a stretch that included a 20-game winning streak from the middle of 2017 to the middle of 2021. It also includes three home losses last year, which senior wide receiver Anthony Stell Jr. said Tuesday was an anomaly of a season.

“Last year was last year,” Stell said during media availability. “We’re a new team.”

Through four games, there are plenty of examples to back up what Stell is saying. The Eagles have won twice in September, something the 2022 Eagles (who finished 3-8) failed to do. They have shaved off 66 yards from their defensive rushing average from 289 per game to 223. And they’ve made two more field goals (6 of 8 attempts) than all of last season (4 of 10).

But the Eagles’ offense hasn’t returned to the heights the program has been known to reach. Their total offense is almost exactly the same number of yards per game (389.5) as last year (388.9), and their scoring average is up less than a field goal (24.6 to 27).

That may not be enough against the Vandals, who have scored 42, 33, 17 (at California) and 36 points in their four games and average 437 yards of offense. Their defense leads the Big Sky in yards allowed (282.8 per game), and no other team has possessed the ball as long as the Vandals have (33 minutes, 54 seconds per game).

Yet Stell is confident in the momentum Eastern has built after losing in double overtime to Fresno State and beating Southeastern Louisiana and UC Davis.

“The confidence has been there,” he said. “We’ve never lost confidence. It was really just (about) getting everybody to believe. And I think this year everybody’s buying in, believing. And we’re rolling right now. It’s going to be hard to stop the train because we’re moving.”