Last year, Washington State learned why you can never dismiss a top-tier FCS school. The Eastern Washington Eagles put up over 600 yards of offense on the Cougars defense in a wild 45-42 win in Pullman.
It’s not like Wazzou was bad last season, either. Mike Leach’s team ended with an 8-5 record and finished second in the Pac-12 North, but the Eagles offense was too much for the overmatched defense.
EWU threw for more yards than any team last season by a wide margin. It was the only squad to average over 400 passing yards per game and finished more than 30 yards ahead of the next most productive passing team.
This season, the FCS powerhouse won’t have all-everything wide receiver Cooper Kupp, but quarterback Gage Gubrud didn’t just rely on the new Los Angeles Rams wide receiver in 2016. Gubrud threw for over 5,000 yards and 48 touchdowns, and he had two 1,000-yard receivers other than Kupp.
You’d think that Gubrud was one of those quarterbacks that just stood in the pocket all day and hit open receivers because of the scheme, but that’s not the case at all. Gubrud likes to run when he has the opportunity and led the Eagles in rushing last year. He finished with over 600 yards on the ground, bringing his total to a whopping 400-plus yards of offense per game.
Although Eastern Washington lost its best receiver in school history, Texas Tech lost a more important player from last year’s team. Pat Mahomes was the most talented quarterback in Red Raiders history and was the catalyst behind a passing attack that could move the ball on any defense.
Like Gubrud, Mahomes threw the ball for over 5,000 yards last season and finished with 385 more passing yards than the next-closest quarterback at the FBS level.
Nic Shimonek will be Mahomes’ replacement, but he hasn’t seen a ton of action over the last few seasons. He has thrown a total of 60 passes in his two years as a backup quarterback. Although he has played well, virtually all of his snaps have either come in garbage time or against bad opponents. He is largely untested to this point, and if the Red Raiders finished 5-7 last season with their most talented quarterback ever, how will they fare with a former walk-on at the helm?
No team has had a defense perform as badly as Texas Tech’s has the last few seasons. The Red Raiders have given up over 40 points and 500 yards per game in each of the last three years, and the unit doesn’t look like it is going to show any real improvement any time soon.
The Red Raiders lost five starters and six of their 10 leading tacklers from 2016 and are having to plug the holes with junior college products. Although that strategy can work, JUCO players are very hit or miss. Defensive coordinator David Gibbs has yet to show any improvement in his two previous seasons in Lubbock, and it’s a wonder he was brought back for a third year.
Eastern Washington’s defense noticeably improved over the last half of 2016. The Eagles allowed under 20 points per game over their last eight clashes and had a very good linebacking corps. Although they lost their best player from that unit, the Eagles defense still returns seven starters and should have good production.
The way to beat the Eagles is by keeping the ball on the ground and pounding their undersized defensive line. Eastern Washington’s two losses last season came against teams that did just that in Youngstown State and North Dakota State. Texas Tech doesn’t have the scheme for that. Perhaps even more troubling, it doesn’t have the offensive line for it.
The Red Raiders are going to be starting four underclassmen along the offensive line, and that’s an issue. This unit is going to be just as important as Shimonek against Eastern Washington, and if the hogs up front don’t play well, Texas Tech will lose. The Red Raiders allowed 30 sacks with a very mobile quarterback behind them last season and will likely backslide in 2017.
It’s not hard to see that there are a few different ways Eastern Washington can win this game. The Eagles beat a much better FBS team last season and will score points on this secondary. If Texas Tech can’t keep up, it’s going to lose and make Kliff Kingsbury’s seat scorching hot.