Cooper Kupp and the Eagles from the FCS will take on the Cougars in hopes of spoiling their in-state rival's season opener
No one needs to remind Washington State of the perils of playing a good FCS team. The Cougars learned it firsthand after suffering a 24-17 loss to Portland State in their season opener a year ago. Vikings quarterback Alex Kuresa killed Washington State with his mobility, leading all rushers with 92 yards on 16 carries.
Now Washington State gets another plucky underdog Big Sky opponent when Eastern Washington visits on Saturday. The Eagles have been a thorn in the side of multiple Pac-12 teams in recent seasons. They upset then-No. 25 Oregon State 49-46 in 2013 and took both Washington and Oregon to the wire over the past two seasons.
This is the fourth meeting between the in-state rivals with Washington State winning the previous three. The Cougars edged the Eagles 24-20 in 2012 in the most recent game in the series.
Eastern Washington at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. PT)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Three Things to Watch
1. What can Luke Falk do for an encore?
Washington State torched opposing defenses through the air early and often a year ago. The Cougars boasted the nation's top-ranked passing offense by season's end, churning out 389.2 yards per game. Falk is a big reason for that success.
The former walk-on from Logan, Utah, threw for 4,561 yards, 38 touchdowns and helped Washington State notch its first winning season in 11 years. Falk is poised to put together an even bigger season in 2016 with his top receiver Gabe Marks back. Marks is coming off a season where he accumulated 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns. It all spells trouble for a porous Eastern Washington defense that gave up 39.6 points per game in 2015.
2. Can anyone stop Cooper Kupp?
The 2015 Walter Payton Award winner is back at receiver for Eastern Washington. Kupp is a threat to score any time he gets the ball, with 58 career touchdowns entering the season. During his freshman season in 2013, Kupp set an FCS receiving record with a touchdown catch in 14 consecutive games. He has averaged 122.4 receiving yards per game during his career.
Kupp always seems to do his best when lining up against FCS defenders. In his college football debut against Oregon State, Kupp totaled 119 yards and two touchdowns on just five catches. Against Oregon last season, he tallied 246 yards on 15 catches. It's a safe bet that Kupp will find a way to make plays downfield against the Cougars as well.
3. Lighting up the scoreboard
Both Washington State and Eastern Washington know how to pull out the offensive fireworks. Stopping other teams from doing the same isn't a major strength for either team.
In their last three season openers against Pac-12 opponents, the Eagles have scored 47.7 points per contest while allowing 55.3 points per game in that same stretch. Washington State struggled to stop other teams at times last season. The Cougars yielded 416.8 yards and 27.7 points per game in 2015. They ranked 74th among FBS teams in scoring defense and 84th in total defense.
Given the level of talent both offenses return in 2016, don't be surprised if this opener turns into a scoring frenzy reminiscent of a WAC football game from the 1980s or ‘90s.
Eastern Washington is used to giving Pac-12 teams fits. This time around, the Eagles are paired with a team that's a huge defensive mismatch. Washington State has too many weapons for Eastern Washington's secondary to handle. Falk will have no trouble loading up on yards and points in a hurry, which will help the Cougars avoid losing to a Big Sky team for a second straight year.
Prediction: Washington State 49, Eastern Washington 38
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo by Dean Hendrick/Eastern Washington University Athletics)