September 01, 2016

(STATS) - Some teams like to open their season facing an overmatched opponent to ease into the new campaign.

That's not the way Eastern Washington operates. Not even close.

Beau Baldwin's squad opens 2016 on Saturday night against a Washington State program that defeated Miami in last December's Sun Bowl. And that matchup with a Pac-12 foe might not even be the most challenging of the Eagles' first four games.

The murderers' row continues when Eastern Washington, ranked 14th in the STATS FCS Top 25, visits five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State next Saturday before its home opener Sept. 17 against fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference power and fifth-ranked Northern Iowa.

"It's exciting to play a tough schedule and put ourselves in some challenging situations," Baldwin said. "That's what our coaches and players love to do. I always wonder if it can get any more challenging than whatever we did last year or the year before, but this one might be the topper."

It starts with a Washington State team that won nine games last season and is led by a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Luke Falk.

"They aren't just a Pac-12 opponent - to me they are a Pac-12 opponent that's going to win a lot of Pac-12 games," Baldwin said. "So it's going to be a huge challenge for us."

The Eagles, the last team to win the FCS championship before the Bison's unprecedented run, have a history of playing Pac-12 teams tough. They blew a fourth-quarter lead in a 59-52 loss at Washington in 2014 and knocked off No. 25 Oregon State 49-46 in 2013. In the last matchup with Washington State in 2012, the Eagles fell 24-20.

A year ago, Eastern Washington opened with a 61-42 loss at No. 7 Oregon and followed with a three-point defeat at UNI to fall to 0-6 all-time against the Panthers.

"When I sit down with (athletic director) Bill Chaves and talk about the games we have the opportunity to play, we get excited about putting ourselves on that stage and in that challenging moment," Baldwin said. "It's a chance to do special things."

Eastern Washington's brutal September doesn't end with the conclusion of the nonconference slate, however, as it opens league play against Northern Arizona, the Big Sky preseason favorite by both the coaches and the media.

The road is treacherous, but the Eagles are well equipped.

The offense is led by 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp, who caught a conference-record 114 passes as a junior last season. By the time this season is over he'll likely hold all the major FCS career receiving records, as he is two touchdowns away from the mark, 486 yards shy and 84 receptions short.

He has not only thrashed FCS defensive backs but FBS secondaries, as well. In three career games against Pac-12 opponents, the three-time FCS first-team All-American has caught 28 passes for 510 yards with eight TDs. He set Autzen Stadium records of 15 catches for 246 yards against Oregon last September.

The problem for opposing defenses is Eastern Washington has another deep threat in Kendrick Bourne, who had 73 receptions for 998 yards and eight TDs in 2015.

The Eagles also have plenty of experience at quarterback, but just who will be taking the majority of snaps is anyone's guess.

Four days before the opener, Baldwin said he wasn't sure who would be starting and implied that he'll be rotating between Jordan West, Reilly Hennessey and Gage Gubrud.

The Eagles averaged an FCS-best 353.3 passing yards last season, with West throwing for 3,002 yards and 30 touchdowns. Hennessey passed for 773 on 91 attempts but it's the sophomore Gubrud, who attempted just 13 passes in 2015, who may be the one seeing the most playing time.

"It could be something in which we design some packages and might not be just one guy. ... The feeling is any package or even if we rotate every series, it really doesn't matter," Baldwin said. "We have faith in all three of them."

There is no question of who will be throwing the ball for Washington State.

As a sophomore last season, Falk led the FBS in passing at 380.1 yards per game and directed the Cougars to their first bowl win since 2003. The All-Pac-12 first-team selection was fifth in the FBS with 4,561 passing yards, had 38 touchdowns and despite attempting 644 passes - the most in the FBS since 2013 - threw just eight interceptions.

One of Falk's least efficient performances of the season, however, came in the opener when the Cougars were upset 24-17 by Big Sky member Portland State. That was Washington State's first loss to a Big Sky team since 1947.

Eastern Washington had the eighth-worst defense in the FCS last year (476.4 per game) and despite being torched, Baldwin sees some advantages for it having to face his pass-happy offense in practice daily.

"There is going to be some of that recognition by the secondaries on both sides of the ball having seen some of the same type of things and formations," he said. "But at the end of the day you have to go play."

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