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Eastern Washington football notebook: Deep, experienced line paves way for Eagles’ balanced offense

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 3, 2018, 10 p.m.

Eastern Washington’s Sam McPherson, center, celebrates with Terence Grady, left, and Chris Schlichting  during a game against Cal Poly on Sept. 22 at Roos Field in Cheney. McPherson scored on a 47-yard run in the third quarter. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington’s Sam McPherson, center, celebrates with Terence Grady, left, and Chris Schlichting during a game against Cal Poly on Sept. 22 at Roos Field in Cheney. McPherson scored on a 47-yard run in the third quarter. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

The left side of Eastern Washington’s offensive line became 65 pounds lighter when junior Tristen Taylor (6-foot-6, 315 pounds) suffered a knee injury last month.

It lost some size, but it hasn’t lost any production.

Fifth-year senior Beau Byus (6-5, 250) has slid into Taylor’s left tackle spot the last two weeks, Big Sky Conference wins against Cal Poly and Montana State in which the Eagles didn’t yield a sack.

One of its greener position groups two years ago, EWU’s deep and experienced offensive front is paving the way for one of the country’s most balanced and explosive offenses.

“This depth started in 2016, when we had no depth,” said EWU head coach Aaron Best, the Eagles’ ex-offensive line coach.

“Coach (Jace) Butorac has done a great job in just his second year with that crew,” Best said. “Those guys believe in the system, and the (skills players) behind them don’t hurt the situation.”

The fifth-ranked Eagles (4-1, 2-0), who rank fourth nationally in total offense (2,773 total yards), have used 13 offensive linemen through five games, 10 regularly.

Right tackle Chris Schlichting, right guard Kaleb Levao, center Spencer Blackburn and left guard Jack Hunter have started all five games. Matt Shook, Wyatt Musser, Matt Meyer, Will Gram and Conner Crist have also earned reps for a line that’s given up just four sacks.

EWU, known for its passing and decorated quarterbacks over the last decade, now trusts its running game, even with one of the FCS level’s top throwing QBs in All-America senior Gage Gubrud.

The Eagles have run the ball 173 times for 1,424 yards and 13 touchdowns. They’ve completed 101 of 164 passes for 1,429 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Junior running back Antoine Custer said that this is the deepest line he’s seen at EWU.

“With the experience they all have under their belt, they’re all locked in,” Custer said. “They know their checks. They’re more confident in checks and running the ball. So even with Tristen being out, the next man stepped up.”

Taylor, a three-year starter and two-time All-Big Sky Conference honorable mention, is out indefinitely. He did not travel to Montana State last week.

Eagles look for payback

When EWU senior corner Josh Lewis was asked if Saturday’s noon meeting with Southern Utah (0-4, 0-1) at Roos Field had feeling of a “revenge” game, he didn’t sidestep the question.

“A little bit, yeah,” said Lewis, who lost 46-28 at SUU last season. “Obviously, we’re going to approach every game the same, whether we lost to them or not. But we have a sour taste in our mouth when it comes to Southern Utah.”

After reeling off five straight wins last season, the Eagles lost back-to-back Big Sky games to the Thunderbirds and Weber State, who who went on to share the conference title.

EWU, which finished 6-2 in conference play, was snubbed by the FCS playoff committee for the losses.

Last year at Southern Utah, the Eagles led at halftime before being outscored 31-7 in the second half, a disastrous stretch that saw the Eagles rack up just 150 yards with two interceptions and two turnovers on downs.

Now the winless Thunderbirds, who’ve played Pac-12 programs Arizona and Oregon State in their nonconference stretch, come to Cheney after a bye week looking for their first win.

SUU dropped a 31-23 decision at Northern Arizona two weeks ago in its conference opener. EWU beat NAU 31-26 on Sept. 8 in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The Thunderbirds, led by 33-year-old head coach Demario Warren, are allowing 580 yards per game.

“If you look at them on film, you wouldn’t know they haven’t won a game yet,” Lewis said. “Two of (their opponents) were Pac-12 teams. They gave NAU a run for their money, and (NAU) is a team we edged out, so we know they’re going to come out firing.”

EWU shines on third down

If the Eagles’ offense is in a third-down situation, there’s a good chance it’s about to move the chains.

EWU ranks third in the country in third-down efficiency (50.7 percent), converting on 34 of 67 tries.


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