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High-powered Eastern Washington offense ready for staunch Weber State defense

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 12, 2018, 10:10 p.m.

Utah linebacker Donavan Thompson  tackles Weber State quarterback Kaden Jenks during the first half  Aug. 30 in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / AP)
Utah linebacker Donavan Thompson tackles Weber State quarterback Kaden Jenks during the first half Aug. 30 in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

His offense has seen better days, but Weber State head coach Jay Hill still boasts one of the best defenses in the land.

It’s what’s kept the 13th-ranked Wildcats (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky) nationally relevant, despite putting up a paltry 244 yards a game.

Fourth-ranked Eastern Washington (5-1, 3-0), which visits Weber State on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Stewart Stadium, doesn’t have that problem. It’s putting up 570 yards and 45 points a contest.

But Hill, also the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator, seemingly cracked the code to EWU’s high-octane attack in his last two meetings with the Eagles, something no other conference program has done in recent years.

EWU seldom reached the end zone in a 28-20 loss at Roos Field last season, a win that helped Weber State earn a share of the conference title.

In 2015, Weber State limited the Eagles again in Cheney, a 14-13 Eagles win. They didn’t meet in 2016.

EWU senior Mitch Fettig played in both games.

“We have a chip on our shoulder knowing they came into the Inferno and beat us last year, and we’re not going to forget that,” Fettig said. “But this is a new team, so we’ll see how it plays out.”

Yes and no.

Weber State returned a handful of pieces on both sides of the ball, including star linebacker LeGrand Toia, who spearheads a man-to-man, blitz-from-everywhere defense that has forced 18 turnovers and tallied 17 sacks.

Toia, an All-American, had 11 tackles, two sacks and two tackles for a loss along with a pass breakup in the win at Cheney last year.

“Playing Eastern is always fun,” Toia said at Big Sky Conference media day in July. “It’s a battle, because they’re a good team. But we’re a good team, too.”

Weber State’s biggest void, though, is the now-graduated Stefan Cantwell, a steady quarterback who led the Wildcats to the FCS quarterfinals a year ago.

Even with a big, experienced offensive line, one of the best freshmen in the county in running back Josh Davis (568 yards) and a proven deep threat in receiver and returner Rashid Shaheed, the Wildcats have had trouble moving the football.

Quarterbacks Jake Constantine and Kaden Jenks have combined for just 585 passing yards, completing only 49 percent of their passes. Weber State ranks 117th out 124 FCS teams in total offense.

In Weber State’s 28-24 upset loss at Northern Arizona last week, the Wildcats had 173 total yards, even though its defense gave its offense ample opportunities by forcing six turnovers.

EWU head coach Aaron Best looks for his evolving defense – its surrendered 17 points in three consecutive games – to force some turnovers of its own on Saturday .

“We have our work cut for us, but I’d like get a few turnovers, control the clock to a certain degree,” Best said. “I’d like to get out in front, to try and get force (Weber) to be one-dimensional.”

Senior receiver Nsimba Webster said playing clean football will be key against the opportunistic Wildcats, who will be celebrating homecoming.

“They create turnovers, so we have to limit those and play the best offensive game we can play,” Webster said.

With EWU All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud sidelined last week in a protective boot and not practicing earlier this week, there’s a good chance sophomore Eric Barriere will get his second consecutive start. EWU didn’t rule Gubrud out on Tuesday.

Barriere helped throttle Southern Utah 55-17 last week, using his arm and shifty legs to combine for 331 yards and three touchdowns and no turnovers.

But SUU ranks last in the country in total defense (590 yards per game). Barriere would get his first look at an elite defense trying to rattle him early.

Whether it’s Barriere or Gubrud, the game features the two highest-ranked Big Sky teams in a game pitting the conference’s best offense against its best defense.

“We’re very excited for this matchup,” Fettig said. “Weber State is a great ballclub, so it’s going to be fun. They have a great defense, and a great offense that is good in the run. They’ve got some receivers who are pretty fast.”

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