MOSCOW — It’s been 23 years since Idaho football supposedly left Eastern Washington behind in the Big Sky Conference, and sprung up to Division I-A play.
It’s also been 20 years since Idaho’s beaten the Eagles, who didn’t transition to the D-I ranks until 1984, when UI was establishing itself in the Subdivision’s upper-echelons.
How the tides have turned. EWU’s now the cemented Big Sky ringleader; Idaho’s still just trying to find its footing in its second year back.
Although it might not be the longest-lived rivalry on the Vandals’ schedule, it’s a significant, proximity-based one. It once was proving grounds for EWU, when it was steadily beaten by the Vandals.
Now that’s the case for UI, as well as this being another early trial to determine if the program has redeveloped any Football Championship Subdivision competence.
But for the Vandals, the significance of today’s game doesn’t need reiterated.
“We’re really fired up for this game; that’s an understatement probably,” said Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino, who officially was named the starter Tuesday. “I think our guys are really hyped up. We haven’t had this type of energy around the building for this type of game in a long time, especially at home.”
Whether Idaho (1-2) can make amends for a 38-14 loss in 2018, and two upset losses before, is to be determined when the Vandals face No. 11 Eastern (1-2) in a nonconference game at noon in the Kibbie Dome, broadcast on Root Sports. It’s the first time the Eags have played at Moscow in seven years.
“Theres a natural rivalry that was built well before I was even here, in the mid ’90s,” EWU coach Aaron Best said.
Petrino said the previous game — in which UI was dominated from front-to-back, torched by mobile Eagle singal caller Eric Barriere — was less about “Xs and Os.” He pointed to the Vandals simply getting “outhit, outpunched” and never recovering after a first-drive fumble and a turnover on downs the next series.
After a five-point loss at heavily favored Wyoming last week, the Vandals at least enter this one with some confidence.
“I think we’re gonna take the field kinda like we did at Wyoming,” Petrino said. “Can’t overlook the Xs and Os, but I think we’re gonna bring that intensity.”
This week, Idaho’s made clear its intentions to bottle up Barriere, to force him to wait long intervals between playing time and prevent him from escaping the pocket when he does see the field.
“Biggest thing we wanna do is get first downs, stay on the field,” coach Paul Petrino said of the chip-away offensive trend that helped almost propel UI to an upset against the Mountain West’s Cowboys.
Improvisation of mobile quarterbacks oftentimes resulted in disaster for UI’s defense in 2018, particularly with Barriere. He consistently broke containment and provided his receivers ample time to shed coverages. Then, he went for 326 yards and three touchdowns on 69 percent with 70 yards rushing and a score.
So far this season, Barriere is completing 62 percent of his throws for 1,027 yards and 11 scores against two picks. He had five passing touchdowns and 522 yards last week in a 49-45 loss to 17th-ranked Jacksonville State, in which Eastern squandered a three-score edge.
Best said his team is using the upset as motivation, and Idaho doesn’t expect any slack from Barriere, one of the FCS’ best who led Eastern to a runner-up finish in the playoffs last season.
“He’s dynamic, 360 yards per game,” Idaho defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “And they ran the ball well last week, (Antoine Custer) had 28 carries for well over 100 yards (184), hit some big runs. We gotta stop the run first and try to bottle up that QB.”
Plugging up Wyoming’s inside rushing attack was where the Vandals fared best last time out.
Around the edges? Not so much, just like in 2018. Star linebacker Christian Elliss said the front seven needs to be more disciplined in its responsibilities to suppress EWU’s outside game, and it needs at least one player to account for Barriere at all times.
Offensively, UI’s bound to target its first-rate pass-catcher, Jeff Cotton, who’s second in the league with 319 yards. And naturally, Best said Eastern’s putting an emphasis on the senior who leads the Big Sky with nine catches per game.
However, standout EWU cornerback Darreon Moore likely will miss the game with an injury. Eastern’s top two linebackers, Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach, also are doubtful, which might prove fruitful for the Vandals’ power-based running game.
Nevertheless, the Eags enter as an 11½-point favorite, per Vegas Insider. In the past, that wasn’t the norm. Before this current streak, UI never had lost consecutive games to EWU.
But the Vandals don’t need much more emphasis.
“I’m ready for it, our team’s ready for it,” Mason Petrino said.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.