Over the next couple of weeks, the BisonReport will take an early look at the North Dakota State football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we start with the Eastern Washington Eagles.
Eastern Washington Eagles vs. North Dakota State Bison
The Fargodome, Fargo, N.D.
September 10th, 2016, 2:30 pm CST kickoff
Eastern Washington head coach: Beau Baldwin (9th season)
Coordinators: Troy Taylor (Passing Game coordinator; 1st season), Aaron Best (Running Game coordinator, 2nd season) and Jeff Schmedding (defensive coordinator; 2nd season)
Eastern Washington 2015 record – 6-5 (5-3 Big Sky): The Eagles has a down season compared to their last few years as they didn't win double digits games and just finished above .500 at 6-5.
2015 offensive stats: 8th nationally in total offense (478.5 YPG), 18th in scoring offense (34.6 PPG), 1st in passing offense (353.3 YPG), 96th in rushing offense (125.2 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 117th nationally in total defense (476.4 YPG), 116th in scoring defense (39.5 PPG), 67th in passing defense (218.4 YPG), 120th in rushing defense (258.0 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Jordan West (3002 yards, 30 TD, 8 INT on 230-of- 356 passing): Jordan West returns for his senior season following a 30 touchdown, 3000 yards passing season last year. He'll be a huge piece to this Eagles offense in the fall.
Returning leading rusher – RB Jabari Wilson (661 yards, 9 TD on 137 carries): While Eastern Washington doesn't run the ball a ton, Wilson is the guy that gets the ball when they do as he almost has double digit touchdowns last season.
Returning leading receiver – WR Cooper Kupp (1642 yards, 19 TD on 114 catches): Bison fans, meet Cooper Kupp because you're going to be seeing a lot of him at the Fargodome and he'll commend a lot of attention with that gaudy stat-line from last season.
Returning leading tackler – LB Miquiyah Zamora (101 tackles): Eastern Washington's defense was among the worst in the FCS last fall, but with their leading tackles coming back, things should improve.
Returning leader in interceptions – Seven different players tied (one pick): A very evenly spread defense for Eastern Washington last fall with sevon players with one interception each.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY BRANDON CLINE OF THE EASTERNER.
What was the biggest thing about this Eastern Washington team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
BC: The biggest thing that I drew from the spring practices and the spring game was how wide open the quarterback battle is. Senior Jordan West started in 10 games last year and threw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, but had a tough last few weeks of the season and was benched over then redshirt freshman Reilly Hennessey (Washington's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013) in the season finale against Portland State. Both West and Hennessey are vying for the starting spot for the 2016 season, but the biggest surprise is that redshirt sophomore Gage Gubrud--the team's third-string QB last season--is right in the thick of things as well. Depending on who you ask, he may be the front-runner heading into fall camp. The reps were pretty evenly divided throughout the spring, but it was Gubrud who was getting most of the first-string reps in the spring game. It's definitely going to be the thing to watch for when EWU begins practice for the season.
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
BC: The biggest story line to follow this season will be that of reigning FCS Player of the Year Cooper Kupp, as he looks to crush every FCS receiving record in his final season. Another big story line to follow will be the quarterback battle, and if head coach Beau Baldwin will settle on one quarterback or if he'll use a dual (or even triple) QB system in games like he did at the end of last season. It didn't quite work out then, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him use all three quarterbacks in the same game, or even the same drive. The third biggest story line is a toss-up between how a completely brand new starting offensive line will fare this season, especially in early games against Washington State, NDSU, and Northern Iowa as they try and find their footing before entering conference play.
What are Eastern Washington's greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
BC: EWU's greatest strength this season is hands-down their receiving corps. Obviously the headliner will be Kupp, but 6'3" senior Kendrick Bourne is one of the best and most explosive wide receivers in the conference, recording 73 receptions for 998 yards and 8 TD's in 2015. Juniors Nic Sblendorio and Terence Grady also return for the Eagles, with the two combining for 48 receptions and 647 receiving yards in 2015. Fifth-year senior Shaq Hill should also see a return to the field this season, after missing nearly all of the 2015 season after having knee surgery. Hill had 52 receptions for 756 yards and 5 TD's in 2014, as well as being a dynamic return man.
What are the Eagles' greatest weaknesses?
BC: The team's greatest weakness, at least at the moment, would have to be their offensive line. The Eagles graduated their entire offensive line from 2015, which was probably the best in the Big Sky and amongst the best in the FCS. Of the 16 offensive linemen listed on the roster, 15 are underclassmen, and most of them have little to no game experience. Senior Jerrod Jones is the most-experienced lineman on the roster, playing in nine games last season and starting in two of them.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Eastern Washington and what's your way too early prediction for their game against the Bison?
BC: I think the Eagles will be fighting for a spot in the playoffs this season, and with the craziness that is the Big Sky, I could see them winning the conference or finishing as low as sixth. It'll be interesting to see if the defense can step up in 2016, after giving up 39.55 per game last season. I think any of the three quarterbacks are capable of running Beau Baldwin's system, and even with a new offensive line the Eagles should still be one of the highest scoring teams in the FCS. Against NDSU and playing in Fargo early in the season as EWU is trying to get comfortable with a (potentially) new quarterback and a new offensive line, I think it'd be a pleasant surprise if the Eagles were able to keep the game relatively close, and anything more than that would be icing on the cake, really.
You can follow Brandon Cline on Twitter @_BrandonCline.
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COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS:
Sept. 10 vs. Eastern Washington
Sept. 17 at Iowa
Oct. 1 vs. Illinois State (Homecoming)
Oct. 8 at Missouri State
Oct. 15 vs. South Dakota State
Oct. 22 at Western Illinois
Oct. 29 at Northern Iowa
Nov. 5 vs. Youngstown State
Nov. 12 vs. Indiana State
Nov. 19 at South Dakota