Eastern 101: Clearing the starting gate; what you need to know about Washington State's Week One opponent

I APPROACH Washington State’s first game this season hat in hand because I was first among those who felt Portland State had zero chance of beating the Cougars in last year's opener. But I have learned my lesson, and hopefully the Cougs have too. The Eagles have averaged nearly 10 wins per season during the Beau Baldwin era and have been the most consistent program in the state of Washington over that 8-year span.

Last year's 6-5 campaign was the most disappointing season in Cheney in some time, and EWU hopes to avoid a repeat. With a super wide receiver leading the way, the Eagle offense should fly in 2016.
AT A GLANCE: Cougars (0-0) vs Eagles (0-0)

5:00 p.m. PT

Martin Stadium (32,952)

Pac-12 Network

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Washington State won 24-20 in Pullman in 2012.

Washington State leads 3-0.

Cougs 40, Eastern 28

WR Cooper Kupp: A three-time All American and Walter Peyton FCS player of the year. Kupp returns for his final season and the opportunity to rewrite the FCS record books. As a junior he had 114 catches for 1642 yards and 19 touchdowns. He is a physical route runner who does a great job getting yards after the catch. The Eagles also return all their other primary receivers from 2015 -- double-teaming Kupp will be difficult.

QB Gage Gubrud: Eastern returning their starting quarterback from the FCS's top passing offense - and opting to replace him anyway, is cause for concern for Cougar fans. Little is known about Gubrud, as he had just 13 pass attempts in his third-string role last season. But the second-year sophomore played well enough this offseason to earn the chance to start the season under center. Jordan West is still waiting in the wings if Gubrud struggles, but Baldwin appears to want to roll the dice against WSU with Gubrud.

The Eagles operate a pass-heavy spread offense, more comparable to that of Mike Price than Mike Leach. They return a lot of playmakers but are replacing all five offensive linemen plus two backups from last season. With a new starter under center it wouldn't be a surprise to see them try to play ball control more than normal to take pressure off Gubrud. Portland State benefited from shortening the game against the Cougs, and the Eagles are likely to follow suit. That said, this passing attack should still have plenty of pop if the Eagles fall behind.

WSU needs to set the tone at the line of scrimmage early and give the new quarterback a baptism by fire. Kupp is a NFL-caliber wide receiver, but Gubrud can't get him the ball without protection. The Cougar defensive front seven needs to disrupt the backfield while watching out for misdirection plays. The more Gubrud is forced to throw under pressure, the better.

Key Stat
354 passing yards per game: The Eagles led the FCS in passing last year with West. If Baldwin thinks Gubrud is better, WSU better take the new QB seriously.

LB Miquiya Zamora: The senior is coming off his second consecutive 100-tackle season and was voted EWU’s 2015 Defensive Player of the Year. He was an All-Big Sky honorable mention in 2014.

DE/BUCK Samson Ebukam: He is Eastern's best pass rusher, and a primary concern for the Cougars. The senior has 14 1/2 career sacks, and was second-team All-Big Sky second team the past two seasons.

The Eagles return nine starters on defense and should improve in ‘16, but they were a very weak group in 2015. The transition to a 4-2-5 defense went poorly in its first outing, with Eastern giving up 39.5 points and 476 yards per game. Eagles fans are optimistic about their front seven but have serious doubts about the secondary.

Play fast. Eastern’s base nickel defense ought to match up well against the Air Raid, but the Cougs had no trouble with nickel packages last year. Whether it is just the sheer amount of reps the Cougs get against the nickel in practice, or the overall depth of the receiving corps, it takes more than just extra defensive backs to stop Luke Falk and Co. The Cougs need to put their speed on display and attack the safeties.

Eastern has closed the talent gap considerably between themselves and the Pac-12, but one area where it is still apparent is on defense. The Eagle defenders simply looked too slow against the Ducks in 2015 and vs. the Huskies the year before. It’s worth noting both of those games were too close for UO and UW and that Eastern's offense played well in those games -- but Oregon burned them for 61 points and UW for 59. The Eagles can't live with that.

Key Stat
258 rushing yards per game: Eastern's switch to 4-2-5 really came back to haunt them in run support in ‘15. They gave up nearly 3,000 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns last season. Run defense should be considered a weakness the Eagles are unlikely to address against the Air Raid.

Shaq Hill returns after missing most of 2015 with a knee injury to lend his speed to the return game. WSU transfer Jordan Dascalo handles all of Eastern's kicking and punting duties, although the Eagles attempted only six field goals last year.

* Kupp is about to become a third generation NFL pro and was an all-state high school recruit out of Yakima’s Davis High in 2012. That he failed to garner a scholarship offer from everyone in the Pac-12 is astounding, but also a testament to how recruiting is more art than science. WSU has the talent advantage over Eastern to be sure, but the Eagles roster is still littered with players who – it is easy to say now looking back - could have made a Pac-12 team. This will be a game won by desire more than talent.

* For the second year in a row, the Cougs open against a team with an X-Factor at quarterback. Portland State replaced their returning starting quarterback with a transfer from BYU who hadn't thrown a live ball since high school, but he managed to find a way to win. The fact that Eastern is doing pretty much the same with the relatively unknown Gubrud could be a bad omen.

* Backup EWU rover J.J. Njoku was a walk on at WSU back in 2012 before making his way to Eastern. Dascalo and OL Matt Meyer also started their careers at Washington State.

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