Washington State season preview: Eastern Washington in Week One

EASTERN WASHINGTON will have a completely retooled offensive line this season and they haven't settled on a starting quarterback yet. The Eagle defense last season ranked towards the bottom nationally in the FCS in several major categories. So why are some Washington State fans warily eyeing the season opener against the Eagles?

Opponent: Eastern Washington

Last meeting: 2012, WSU beat EWU 24-20 in Mike Leach's home opener at Washington State (pictured above with EWU's Beau Baldwin).

Returning starters: 16 (9 defense, 5 offense, 2 special teams)

Date of matchup: Sept. 3 (Pac-12 Network, 5 pm)

Location/venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman

Star players: WR Cooper Kupp, R-Sr., Safety Zach Bruce, R-Sr., LB Miguiyah Zamora, R-Sr., WR Kendrick Bourne, Jr., DT Matthew Sommer, Sr., DE Samson Ebukam

Matchup to watch for: WSU defensive line vs. EWU offensive line.
Eastern has a decent number of starters back but none of them are found on the o-line -- the Eagles lost all five OL starters plus two backups from last season. There are only three o-linemen back with any game-day experience. One is former WSU signee Matt Meyer of Lynden.

EWU’s inexperience up front should translate into consistent pressure from Washington State. But if the Cougs don’t close down the run, and/or if they have stretches where they do give the QB too much time, the game could turn into a shootout, with star wideout Cooper Kupp leading the charge.

Area of weakness that WSU could exploit:
Eastern hasn’t settled on a quarterback and that lack of clarity under center could be something for WSU to take advantage of in the season opener for both teams. Right now in fall camp in Cheney, third-year sophomore Gage Gubrub is running with the 1’s and both third-year sophomore Reilly Hennessey (two starts last season) and fifth-year senior Jordan West (13 career starts) are splitting time with the 2’s.

Kupp will be in the NFL next year and before he leaves Cheney, he has designs on smashing a whole bunch of FCS receiving records. But if the WSU pass rush can bring the quarterback’s eyes down early, Kupp’s impact could be limited. Eastern has a new quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator in Troy Taylor and if conventional wisdom holds, there would figure to be a transition period before EWU is firing on all cylinders in its passing attack. But give any QB the time to throw and crooked numbers follow.

EWU would naturally like to lean on the run game to take some of the pressure off. Senior Jabari Wilson returns after starting eight games (137 carries, 661 yards, 4.8 ypc) but he has missed 15 of 25 career games to injury. Behind him are a pair of inexperienced sophomores and three true freshmen, with EWU hoping at least one from that group can emerge and catch WSU off guard. 

A quick analysis of the stakes, considering three possible outcomes:
1) WSU wins big. The Cougs do not want to repeat their slow start of last year. After tasting a 9-win season and a bowl victory, WSU figures to go into the opener with the intent on keeping the pedal pressed to the floor. A WSU win well in hand by the start of the fourth quarter would also allow Mike Leach and his assistant coaches to rest some starters and get key backups playing time headed into a crucial Week Two matchup on the road at Boise State.

2) WSU wins close. There would be disappointment in some quarters, of course, and lead to questions on if WSU was too keyed up and trying too hard to erase the memories of the season opening loss to Portland State a year ago. Eastern has some questions coming in for sure but don't think for a second they won't be confident.  Yes, Eastern is 1-4 in their last five games against Pac-12 opponents but the average score of those games is an eye-opening 44-38.

3) EWU wins. The cries about the sky falling wouldn't be as shrill as last year after the PSU loss, but it would be close. A loss would set the Cougs back big time and put WSU in a position of having to win a bunch more games to climb into the top 25. Washington State was an uber-resilient bunch in 2015 but that's not the goal this season. In 2016, WSU doesn't want to be as resilient as much as they want to put teams away earlier.

* Eastern's defense resembled a turnstile last season. They ranked 116th nationally in the FCS in scoring defense (39.5 PPG), 117th in total defense (476.4 YPG), 67th in pass defense (218.4 YPG) and 120th in rushing defense (258.0 YPG).  EWU allowed an average of 39.5 points per game in 2015 in adjusting to a new defensive scheme and a new defensive coordinator (Jeff Schmedding). They figure to be better this season on D with a year's experience under their belt - the question is how much better. Eastern Washington's defense operates from a 4-2-5 base.

* Eastern's offense last season was No. 8 nationally in the FCS in total offense (478.5 YPG), 18th in scoring offense (34.6 PPG), No. 1 in passing offense (353.3 YPG), 96th in rushing offense (125.2 YPG).

* In addition to Meyer, former WSU starting punter Jordan Dascalo, a junior, now handles punting chores at Eastern.

* Eastern posted an uncharacteristic 6-5 record last season. In his eight seasons at EWU, head coach Baldwin is 73-30.

* Eastern lost 14 seniors to graduation from its 2015 team.

* Rising Eagles to watch for: WR Nsimba Webster, CB Nzuzi Webster, RB Ashanti Kindle, RB Sam McPherson, WR Zach Eagle, LB Alek Kacmarcik, rover Cole Karstetter (brother of former Coug WR Jared Karstetter).

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