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Pre-Snap Read: Previewing WSU vs. the Eastern Washington Eagles

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We highlight EWU HC Beau Baldwin's offensive philosophy and scheme their base defense. Eastern brings a potent offense with a stud receiver into Martin, we have Jim Allen of the Spokesman-Review here to share his thoughts.

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It was a touch below fifty degrees and dreary. Foreboding clouds rolled in the distance before a windy drizzle openly announced the impending downpour everyone not inside the luxury boxes and suites of Martin Stadium High Society, or fortunate enough to find themselves under its overhang, would have to endure for their first dose of Cougar Football Saturday. Admittedly, few were even interested in attempting the endeavor and not a single one of those that did left the stadium pleased about anything they had just witnessed.

It was a hell of a way to introduce what would be the best football season at WSU in over a decade.

This year, the expectations are different. The Cougars are a team that should be unstoppable tomorrow.

But Mike Leach has never started 1-0 at Washington State, and if the Cougs want reality to meet the lofty expectations surrounding the program, it'll be important to get off on the right foot this Saturday -- particularly in terms of getting other other team off the field in a timely fashion so that the offense can dominate.

The gates of Martin Stadium swing open for a 5 p.m. PT kick-off against the Eastern Washington University Eagles, broadcast on Pac-12 Networks.

*****
Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin has the program cooking. The Eagles are annual contenders deep in the FCS playoffs and are once again pegged in the preseason Top 15 of their subdivision this year. Baldwin, a Curtis High graduate (and football state champion) played his college ball at Central Washington, backing up John Kitna his senior year. After college, Baldwin spent a little time in Sweden as a player/coach on a semi-pro team, before returning to Central to be the QB coach for Kitna in his last season.

Baldwin skipped back and forth between Eastern and Central, first with assistant and coordinator positions, then as a head coach. Under Baldwin, the Eags make their hay on offense.

"We have developed, in my opinion, an offense that I can't even put a name on. We pick some different parts of different offenses and make it our own. We try and mold it around the quarterback to make him be successful. Ultimately, it is an offense with the mindset that we are going to create situations where our quarterback can succeed." -- Beau Baldwin
They've certainly done that. From Matt Nichols to Bo Levi Mitchell to Vernon Adams, the successes at the quarterback position have leap-frogged their very impressive predecessors. As the skillset of the QBs has changed, the offense has adapted. But one core philosophy in Baldwin's offense remains: The quarterback is given every opportunity to shine.

Washington State will see all three Eastern quarterbacks if pre-game comments from Baldwin are to be believed. Sophomore Gage Gubrud (No. 8) has mostly lit up their fall camp. In the most recent scrimmage, Gubrud went 16-of-17 for 202 yards and three TDs, adding another 132 yards on the ground. Competing with him for the job are fellow sophomore Reilly Hennessey and senior Jordon West, whom you might've seen team up to hang 42 points on Oregon last year.

Defense hasn't exactly been a point of recent pride for Eastern, with last year's unit under first-year coordinator Jeff Schmedding being one of the worst in Baldwin's career in Cheney. There will be a huge opportunity here for the WSU offense to get rolling in a big way early in the season, jumpstarting a campaign in which an offense that was relentlessly efficient last season becomes ruthlessly explosive this season.

Schmedding graduated from Eastern in '02 and gained all of his position coach experience with the Eagles. He was promoted to defensive coordinator from coaching special teams. The Eags are primarily a quarters team (what are does that mean?) ran out of a 4-2-5 Nickel base. They'll mix it up with some Cover 3 and are fairly aggressive with zone stunts and blitzes up front.

Their Cover 4 isn't the straight "area responsibility" zone coverage you're used to, and truthfully very few defenses are nowadays. Instead, they have four defenders (two corners, two safeties) devoted to vertical coverage and three guys underneath (Sam, Mike, Rover) that are what they call "attached" players, who drop relative to the route combinations they see from the offense -- what's commonly being called "pattern matching" (what's "pattern matching"?).

EWU_basequarters

This forms the basis for their "Quarter-Man" technique, which allows them to disguise man coverage to the outside with one of their corners playing off. Immediately you should think about WSU's quick pass and screen game and how this scheme isn't particularly equipped to handle that very effectively. Next thing that should come to mind? Wheel routes. Stopping the Cougs will be an extremely tall order for EWU.

What has me concerned about Eastern

Cooper Kupp: Kupp hauled in 114 receptions for 1642 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, just barely below 150 yards per game. Here is a fantastic Fox Sports article on Kupp from Sam Gardner. I'm sure you've heard about him by now, as local Spokane media is touting this Saturday as a Gabe Marks v. Cooper Kupp showdown. In three games against Pac-12 opponents (OSU, UW, UO), Kupp has racked up 510 yards and eight touchdowns.

Kupp is by far The Stud on Eastern's offense this season and they'll likely try to target him at least 10 times during the game, moving him around the formation to create match-up advantages. The second-most targeted receiver was then-junior Kendrick Bourne with 73, followed by a pair of sophomores, each in the mid-20s.

"8-Gage": Though I'm not super thrilled with Gubrud's nickname, the kid can run. And Wazzu's defense -- while greatly improved in a lot of areas -- had all sorts of problems with mobile QBs. Jordan West has the experience, playing pretty well in Autzen in what I'm sure was an emotional game against Vernon Adams last year, but until the Cougs prove they can handle a read-option QB with wheels, it's going to have me a little worried to see one on the opposite sideline.

PTTLOTO: Terrible acronym. "Playing to the level of the opponent" could almost be how you would define WSU last season. Be it a middling Big Sky team or the eventual Pac-12 champion, Wazzu battled teams close (for the most part). Did that character trait stick around through the off-season?

Hesitation: The beginning of last year was like watching a Ferrari that wouldn't turn over in the driveway and had to be push-started in a sketchy part of town you don't want your friends to see you in. It took a while for the offense to catch its stride is what I'm saying. Typically, defenses are further along than offenses early on in the season but it would be nice to see the offense establish good tempo and rhythm before the fourth game of the season.

Jim Allen, on the EWU beat for the Spokesman-Review kindly lent us his time...

What are you most confident in about the Eastern Washington Eagles?

"The receiving corps, and not just Cooper Kupp. Senior Kendrick Bourne had 998 yards last year and is a legit deep threat. So is senior Shaq Hill, who missed most of last year with injury. Lots of talent overall. Quarterback depth is strong, should presumptive starter Gage Gubrud struggle or get hurt. Also, Gubrud has wheels, so Grinch will have to take that into account. The O-line is new but the talent is solid, and they have some three-star recruits at running back who should see action."

What has me confident about the Cougs

Fresh Grade A Beef: EWU OL coach Aaron Best is replacing every starter from last year. And two of the best back-ups. They aren't undersized, with all five of them being over 300 lbs, but they are borderline dangerously inexperienced to throw before a complex front-seven such as the one Alex Grinch and Joe Salave'a deploy.

The Messiah Of The Palouse: Luke Falk grew up a lot through last season. He transitioned from hesitant starter to one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the history of a school that doesn't have any shortage of gutsy QB play. Etching out a place on the pantheon of Wazzu QB's is a task for another date; just know there are very few signal callers in college football I'd trust over Luke Falk to win a game and none of them in this particular system.

Throw it up to No. 9: Can't mention one without the other. Jeff Nusser wrote about Gabe Marks' awesomeness the other day, which includes an amazing interview with Darnay Tripp, and Britton Ransford wrote about how he's on a mission in our season preview. We are lucky to watch these two play catch on Saturdays in our school colors.

D (white picket fence sign): Eastern was not very good on defense last season. They gave up over 40 points six times and half of those went over 50. Their offense is so potent they can kind of get away with that sort of thing. While Eastern has a good shot at defending four verts moderately well ... everything else should be completely up for grabs.

#Nice weather: Forecast is for upper-60s, maybe a little overcast but zero chance of rain. Last season had terrible weather, real uncooperative stuff, happy to see that trend change game one of 2016.

So, Mr. Allen...

What about Wazzu should concern EWU?

"Almost everything. EWU's defense last year was poor even by FCS standards, especially on third down. No real playmakers apart from rush end Samson Ebukam and linebacker Miquiyak Zamora. I think Eastern's 4-2-5 scheme will play right into Falk's hands. And remember, four years ago the Cougs ran 30 times vs. EWU - it could be even more rushes this year against a line that's not very deep. On offense, I would expect Gubrud to struggle in his first start against an excellent WSU secondary that will do a good job of disguising its coverages."

How I see the game playing out

Eastern has the offensive firepower to surprise a defense if they aren't on their A-game, and that will probably happen early on Saturday. A couple explosive run plays will help keep Eastern in the middle of things and Kupp will get his in the receiving game. It might only be a one- or two-possession game at half, but Eastern can't stop WSU forever, and the Cougs start to really distance themselves after they come out of the locker room, racking up a few huge TD plays in the third quarter.

Final Score: WSU 58 - 34 EWU

And, Mr. Allen...

"EWU fans wish they could have played this game two years ago, with Vernon Adams and Co. - that game would have been a tossup, IMO. Not so this time: the Eagles will make plays on offense (remember, they scored 49 at OSU, 52 at UW and 42 at Oregon the last three years), but I just don't see how they slow down Falk and Co. unless the Cougs turn it over a few times. My prediction: WSU 45, EWU 27, with the Cougars up by three scores at halftime."

*****

Huge thanks to Jim for educating us on the Eags. You can follow his coverage here, and find him on Twitter here.


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