USA Today Sports/Bisig

Sorensen commentary: Why WSU's season opener vs. EWU holds a ton of intrigue

WASHINGTON STATE’s first game against Boise State in more than a dozen years has Cougar football fans excited about Week Two of the upcoming campaign, but I have to tell you the season opener against Eastern Washington on Sept. 3 holds a ton of intrigue as it pits two of the most prolific offenses in the nation.

Granted, I’m a little biased in my anticipation of this one. I’m a proud Coug, long-time CF.C columnist and former WSU color man, and this season I’ll be entering my 14th as EWU’s radio color analyst.

Dual homerism aside, this is no casual FBS vs. FCS match up.

For two reasons, the proverbial “don’t look past them” refrain rings loud.

For one, EWU is a perennial FCS power who plays Pac-12 teams really tough; they’ve gone 1-4 in their last five games against Pac-12 foe but the average score of those games was a high-octane 44-38.

For two, as WSU’s opener last season against Portland State showed, a good team with lesser talent can beat a team with superior talent if the superior squad just goes through the motions.

On paper, I’d say the Cougs should beat EWU by three TDs.

That’s on paper. If the Eagles play a near-perfect game and the Cougs lack energy, this could be a whole bunch of fun in the fourth quarter.

While EWU is coming off its worst season in forever (6-5/5-3) and missed the FCS playoffs for just the second time in seven years, I expect a rebound in 2015. That's because they have experience, with 54 returning lettermen and 17 of them returning starters. That group includes all-world receiver/return man Cooper Kupp, the reigning winner of FCS’ version of the Heisman Trophy (the Walter Payton Award) and one of the top projected receivers in next year’s NFL draft.

The national magazines are picking EWU to be in or near the national FCS top 10 this season. That’s a place Eagles coaches, players and fans expect to be every year and a clue to why they play Pac-12 school so tough: they know they're good and fear no one.

The Eagles are of course known for offense (478.5 yards per game in 2015) and led the FCS in passing last season (353.3 yards per game), but nine of those 17 returning starters are on defense.

The D operates from a 4-2-5 base and is led by veteran heavy hitters and All-Big Sky honorees Zack Bruce at safety and Miguiyah Zamora at linebacker. In addition, the front four boasts honors candidate Matthew Sommer (6-5, 320) at DT and pass-rushing ace Samson Ebukam at DE. Between them, Sommer and Ebukam have 79 career starts. Also keep your eye on sophomore rover back Cole Karstetter (brother of former WSU wideout Jared Karstetter).

The key for the D this season, as it will be when they face WSU, is to make third-down stops. That hurt them badly a year ago. D-coordinator and safeties coach Jeff Schmedding also is tinkering with more aggressive schemes. He felt good about the progress during spring ball, which was capped off by a great defensive showing in the final scrimmage.

AS FOR THE OFFENSE, KUPP IS THE center of attention. In his three years at EWU, the pride of Yakima's Davis High has 311 receptions for 4,764 yards and and 56 TD's, putting him on pace to break all the FCS national receiving records. In three career games against Pac -12 schools (Oregon, Washington and Oregon State) he has averaged 9.3 catches, 170 yards and 2.67 TDs per game. Cougar DBs will know they’ve been in a brawl after facing him.

He’s no lone wolf on the flanks, though. Among the other returning wideouts are Kendrick Bourne, who caught 73 passes last year, and Shaq Hill, who redshirted last season but was all-conference in 2014.

The quarterback position is not so settled. It’s a three-person (yes, three-person) race for the starting nod. Two guys with experience -- third-year sophomore Reilly Hennessey (two starts and 773 air yards last season) and fifth-year senior Jordan West (13 career starts and a glossy 154.4 passer rating) -- are fighting it out along with third-year sophomore Gage Gubrub, who had an excellent spring, completing 45 of 60 passes for 519 yards and 4 TDs in scrimmages.

You’d have to think West, as the most proven commodity, will prevail. But regardless who gets the job, the last 15 years at EWU suggest the guy behind center is going to be solid no matter what.

The running back spot is secure with senior Jabari Wilson (73.4 yards ppg last season) and a bevy of young talent behind him.

Which brings us to the offensive line.

The Eagles lose all five starters and two backups from last season. They have only three hosses back with any game-day experience. One is former WSU signee Matt Meyer of Lynden.

Getting an O-line to gel is one of the keys for any football team and doing so typically requires time and experience. The Eagles have some appealing talent in the OL ranks, but playing the Cougars in the opener is no favor to them. How they respond in the game's first few series' to the fight and fury of Robert Barber & Co. will likely say a lot about where the contest winds up.

NOTABLE:

* The Cougars and Eagles kick off Sept. 3 at 5 pm in Martin Stadium. This will be the first of seven home games for the Cougars – their most since 1999.

* The game will not be Mike Leach's first against EWU. His Texas Tech Red Raiders hosted the Eagles in 2008. Tech won 49-24. As part of the visiting broadcast team, I had the chance to visit with Mike before the game. Here's the entertaining recap of that conversation: My day in the Pirate's Den.

* In addition to Meyer and Karstetter, the Eagles feature another familiar face to Cougar Nation: standout punter Jordan Dascalo is a former WSU starter.

* EWU coach Beau Baldwin is is entering his ninth season at the helm and sports a 73-30 record that includes the FCS national title in 2010.

* EWU’s staff has two new faces this season. Former Cal QB and assistant coach Troy Taylor takes over from Zack Hill (now at Boise State) as O- coordinator and former EWU player and Cal Poly assistant Eti Eni takes over the DL from Ryan Sawyer, who departed for  private business.

EWU'S RECORD AGAINST THE PAC:

2015: Lost at Oregon 61-42

2014: Lost at UW 59-52

2013: Won at OSU 49-46

2012: Lost at WSU 24-20

2011: Lost at UW 30-27

2009: Lost at Cal 59-7

2008: Lost at Colorado 31-24

2006: Lost at OSU 56-17

2002: Lost at ASU 38-2

2000: Lost at OSU 21-19

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and has been the color analyst for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years since then. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.


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