Who says there can't be football after the Super Bowl?
McNeese and Tarleton State opened the FCS spring season on Feb. 13 with an overtime shootout, followed by a dozen more games last week. Now another round of FCS schools will begin their spring season this week, including the Eastern Washington Eagles, who head southeast to take on the Idaho Vandals in the Kibbie Dome in a matchup of conference rivals that currently appear in Athlon Sports' Power Poll.
Saturday will mark the first game action for both Big Sky Conference programs in more than 15 months, as both Eastern Washington and Idaho last took the field on Nov. 23 in seven-point wins over Portland State and Northern Arizona, respectively. Eastern Washington arrives in 2021 as the proud owners of 13 straight winning seasons, trailing only McNeese (15) for the longest active streak in FCS. Eagles head coach Aaron Best has maintained the program's winning ways, going 26-12 overall in his three seasons at the helm, including an appearance in the national championship game in 2018. Unfortunately, Best won't be on the sidelines for his team's opener as the school announced Thursday night that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Eti Eng will fill the coaching duties that Best can't do remotely while in quarantine, a school release said.
Idaho returned to the FCS subdivision in 2018 after 22 years as an FBS program, a transition that has been overseen by head coach Paul Petrino, younger brother to Bobby Petrino, current head coach at Missouri State after stops at Louisville (twice), Western Kentucky, Arkansas, and one forgettable year in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. Paul Petrino is 28-55 in seven seasons at Idaho, including a 5-7 mark in 2019.
This will mark the 11th time these two schools have met. The Vandals maintain a slight 6-4 edge over the Eagles, including a 35-27 victory in their last meeting during the 2019 season.
Eastern Washington at Idaho
Kickoff: Saturday, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. ET
TV: SWX, PlutoTV
Spread: Eastern Washington -6
When Eastern Washington Has the Ball
Quarterback Eric Barriere enters his senior season looking to build on an already impressive resume filled with a number of high-caliber showings. Having led the Eagles to the 2018 FCS title game, Barriere commanded the No. 1 total offense and No. 2 scoring offense in 2019 as Eastern Washington averaged 524.8 yards and 40.6 points per game. He was far from a sole contributor, though, as Antoine Custer Jr. finished in the top 15 in both rushing touchdowns (16, 11th) and yards (1,228, 12th) in 2019.
But Custer's departure — and that of many others on the EWU offense — means that only Barriere and left tackle Tristen Taylor return as starters on the offensive side of the ball. That, in turn, leaves redshirt senior Tamarick Pierce and sophomore Silas Perreiah as the primary ball carriers to begin the season, with neither making much of an impact last season. It's a similar story on the receiving side, as Talolo Limu-Jones (48.1 ypg, 7 TDs) is the only returning receiver with any notable numbers from a season ago. While far from ideal, Barriere's experience and veteran leadership steering this offense and boosting the play of those around him will certainly be a welcome presence.
One of the primary forces looking to halt Barriere's and the Eagles' momentum is Idaho linebacker Tre Walker, a first-team HERO Sports Sophomore All-American in 2019. Walker finished second-team All-Big Sky thanks to his 138 total tackles — tied for the sixth-highest mark in program history — and 74 solo tackles. He finished in the top 10 in FCS in both back tackle totals. He's definitely not alone, however, as an eye-popping 16 linebackers and defensive linemen with significant reps — if not starts — return for this season, including Christian Elliss who was not far behind Walker with 9.5 tackles and 1.1 TFLs per game last season. That group offers plenty of support to a Vandals defense that could offer a stern opening test for Barriere and company.
When Idaho Has the Ball
There will be a new name under center for Idaho in 2021, as graduate transfer Mike Beaudry arrives, stepping in after Mason Petrino led the Vandals' attack in 2019. It's been a rocky road for Beaudry, whose resume includes a trip to the 2017 Division II championship game with West Florida — where he was part of the inaugural team as the program found its footing — before a season at UConn that was cut short to just five games due to injury. Beaudry will inherit an offense that finished roughly middle-of-the-pack in 2019, averaging 25.7 points and 391.6 total yards per game.
The Vandals' calling card on offense was controlling the clock via the run game, posting a top-30 time of possession at just a shade over 31 minutes per game. While the Vandals didn't have a single game-breaker in the backfield, that pace — combined with a top-50 rushing attack spearheaded by Aundre Carter and Nick Romano — helped keep Idaho in most games as half their FCS losses came by six or fewer points.
Eastern Washington found some tough sledding on defense in 2019, finishing in the bottom 30 in both points (34.6) and yards (445.4) allowed per game. The Eagles also mustered just 1.5 sacks and 5.1 TFLs per game, both marks sitting just outside the bottom 25 in their respective categories. Similar to its offense, Eastern Washington will feature plenty of new faces on defense, with just four starters — including a pair of Johnsons, in Mitchell (Buck end) and Kedrick (linebacker) — returning from the 2019 team, so there will likely be an opportunity for some younger players to make an early impact and potentially carve out starting roles for the balance of the season.
Eastern Washington has a chance to make some noise in the Big Sky, with both Montana and Montana State opting out of the spring season. Relying on its offense would be a smart way forward, as Eric Barriere provides critical leadership for a unit with little experience. Idaho will need its front seven to step up to the challenge in order to prevent the Eagles from invading Moscow and leaving with a season-opening win.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 34, Idaho 24
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.