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Fifth-ranked Eastern Washington ready to host improving Idaho for first time since 1994

Eastern Washington doesn’t see the same Idaho team that was handled on the road weeks ago at UC Davis and Idaho State, its rude reintroduction to the Big Sky Conference.

Not on film, anyway.

When the Vandals (3-4, 2-2 Big Sky) visit fifth-ranked EWU (5-2, 3-1) at noon Saturday at Roos Field – their first meeting in Cheney since 1994 –the Eagles expect a different, more confident bunch.

After a late missed extra-point attempt cost the Vandals in a 24-23 loss at Montana State two weeks ago, Idaho had its way with Southern Utah in a 31-12 homecoming win.

Now it’s EWU’s homecoming, a sold-out game featuring the Big Sky’s two closest opponents (77 miles). Their rare meeting in Cheney has led to the construction of steel bleachers behind the south end zone, an effort to fit a few hundred more people in the stadium.

The Eagles, who are coming off a bye, have had two weeks to prepare for Idaho, a program that dominated its series with EWU in the 1980s and 1990s before spending the past 22 years at the FBS level.

Now they’re trying to rekindle an old conference rivalry, only this time it’s the Eagles who are the established FCS power.

After one of its worst offensive outings in a decade, a 14-6 loss at Weber State without All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud, EWU is eager to face Idaho for the first time since 2012, a 20-3 Eagles win at the Kibbie Dome.

“As a team they’re playing way better, with high energy,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said of Idaho. “They have a few guys on defense that can disrupt any play at any time.”

EWU tight end Henderson Belk echoed Best.

“They’ve got some really good linebackers and can fly around,” Belk said. “And a really good defensive line.”

Idaho, paced by versatile linebacker Kaden Elliss, is a physical, Cover 4 team that’s given some offenses fits but has only accounted for one interception. Idaho hasn’t won an away game this season.

Sixth-ranked UC Davis and Idaho State, two of the better offenses in the nation, shredded the Vandals 44-21 and 62-28, respectively.

A healthy EWU offense (524 yards per game) is believed to be the best in the Big Sky, though, and has outscored opponents 183-47 at home this season.

Operative word: healthy.

Gubrud’s status for Saturday is a mystery for those outside the locker room. He’d been out with an injured foot since a Sept. 29 win a Montana State, but he was practicing in full pads on Tuesday without his protective boot and sharing first-team reps with sophomore Eric Barriere.

Best said he’d find out internally this week if Gubrud, who is 16 yards shy of 10,000 career passing yards, is a go for Idaho. If not, Barriere will get this third start of the season.

His first two starts were a study in contrast.

Barriere had 331 total yards and three touchdowns in 55-17 win over Southern Utah, which has the worst defense in the FCS. Against fourth-ranked Weber State, which has arguably the best defense in the nation, he was held to 19-of-42 passing for 185 yards and two interceptions, the first time EWU didn’t score a touchdown since 2008.

Idaho’s defense ranks between the two, and has helped a struggling run-first offense that’s averaged just 24 points against Big Sky opposition.

The Vandals have employed a two-QB system with Pullman product and scrambler Mason Petrino, head coach Paul Petrino’s son, and former Lewiston star Colton Richardson, a big body with a big arm.

The Vandals lean on Isaiah Saunders, who has rushed for 650 yards and five touchdowns this season, just shy of EWU leading rusher Sam McPherson (680 yards).

“They like to get into two tight-end sets and run between the ‘C’ gaps,” Best said of Idaho, which faces a EWU defense that’s given up just 18.2 points against Big Sky opponents.

Petrino plans to resume platooning his QBs.

Richardson missed the Montana State game with a head injury. Last week, he got only one play against Southern Utah, on Idaho’s second series, and fumbled the snap. Because the Vandals got an early lead and shut out SUU for three quarters, coach Petrino said he was able to keep Richardson on the sideline.

“It’s another week for him to practice and another week away from handling that injury,” Petrino said.

The Vandals jumped to a 31-0 lead over SUU.

“We’ve got to come out of the blocks fast, ready to play,” Petrino said of playing EWU. “We can’t let them get a lead early and make us one-dimensional.”

Idaho might be without one of its starting offensive linemen. Conner Vrba, a 6-foot-1, 307-pound redshirt sophomore, starts at quick guard and alternates at center with Sean Tulette. But Vrba left the Southern Utah game with a leg injury. He missed practice early this week and is listed as day-to-day to play against EWU.

Starting strongside linebacker Ty Graham (6-0, 214), from Cheney, suffered a head injury in the Montana State game and did not play against Southern Utah. He was restricted in practice early this week but expected to be cleared to play against EWU.

“We’re more banged up than we’ve been all year,” Petrino said.

After gaining just one turnover in the first six games, Idaho recovered two fumbles and had two interceptions against SUU.

“After all these weeks without a turnover, to show we can get one felt good,” starting strong safety Denzal Brantley said.

Senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower got his first career interception on SUU’s first offensive play. He also saved a touchdown in the second half when he ran down quarterback Austin Ewing inside the 5-yard line and forced a fumble.

Spokesman-Review correspondent Peter Harriman contributed to this report.

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