CHENEY, Wash. — With its first three choices at quarterback unavailable, Idaho pulled out an unconventional gambit.

And for the greater part of their Big Sky rivalry matchup with No. 9 Eastern Washington, the Vandals’ surprise tactic worked.

Much of the pocket-passing game was dropped from UI’s offense, which effectively rode a fresh-installed, read-and-speed option attack with utility athlete Zach Borisch making his first career start under center.

But in the end, Idaho couldn’t sustain the deceptive magic.

Its final four series were stopped — including a potential game-tying last drive — as the Eagles squeaked out a hard-fought 38-31 victory Saturday at a wind-affected Roos Field.

“That’s the antithesis of what they showed us in Game 1,” said EWU coach Aaron Best, whose Eagles lost 28-21 on Feb. 27 to the Vandals and pro-style quarterback Mike Beaudry.

“They did a good job game-planning with the quarterback they had. They were rolling with that all week, and we had no intel, so we made adjustments on the fly.”

EWU (5-1) got its wits, then all but punched its ticket to the Football Championship Subdivision postseason, snapped a two-game skid versus Idaho and extended its winning streak on “The Inferno” to 17 games.

Unlike many of the contests in that stretch, this one was no cakewalk.

It was a herculean debut from Borisch against a heavily favored foe from his home state. The 6-foot, 203-pound redshirt sophomore hails from Kennewick, Wash., where he won Class 3A player of the year honors and a 2016 state championship as a superstar Kamiakin High School quarterback.

Borisch had been listed as a defensive back and running back in the past. He’d only ever appeared on special teams.

Yet he was tasked to return to his old position with Beaudry, CJ Jordan and Nikhil Nayar sidelined for unspecified reasons. Each of them owned in-game experience this year.

Idaho (2-3) kept its scheme under wraps during the game's lead-up, and Borisch — with only a week to prep for his first outing at QB in over four years — delivered a memorable, spirited performance, supplying Idaho with palpable energy and likely solidifying himself as some kind of piece in UI’s offense going forward.

He averaged 6.2 yards per carry, accounting for 205 of the Vandals’ 278 ground yards and two of their three touchdowns on 33 of their staggering 59 attempts.

Bursting through tackles with power and slipping past defenders with exceptional quickness, balanced footwork and hesitation moves, Borisch resembled a top-flight military-academy quarterback, posting the best statistical UI rushing day in 14 years.

“It helped that he’s been playing running back, and he’s been working hard at that,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. “We felt like he’d do a good job running, and we came up with some good schemes to help him. He just competed his tail off.”

Idaho's system had Borisch line up at shotgun and often read EWU's defensive movements, deciding whether to give way to bruiser Roshaun Johnson or pull the ball for himself.

Sometimes, Borisch took off immediately after collecting the snap. He selected his lanes on the fly like a veteran ballcarrier. Borisch knew when to cut, or when to hit a gap hard. And Eastern didn't really know how to wrap him up.

Johnson added 54 yards and a short touchdown as UI banked on methodical drives, catching Eastern off-guard and winning the time-of-possession column by about 13 minutes.

“Our coaching staff came up with a really good plan to give us a chance to win, and we had a chance to win right down at the end,” Petrino said. “I’m super proud of our guys.

"It just shows you a lot about our players and our staff and how much they care about each other. They fought hard."

Facing a 38-31 deficit and a fourth-and-1 at EWU’s 37-yard line with the clock showing 1:34, UI dialed up a rare pass. Eastern defensive end Mitchell Johnson read it precisely, snagging an interception at the line of scrimmage to seal it.

A Keshaun King pick on a 50-50 out-route ball seven minutes earlier set up the Eagles’ seven-play, 78-yard scoring drive. Dennis Merritt capped it with the go-ahead touchdown run, his third.

Merritt, who posted 64 of EWU’s 167 ground yards, tied the score at 31 on the previous possession — a versatile, 87-yard drive highlighted by poised play from All-American quarterback Eric Barriere.

EWU’s national-powerhouse offense had some trouble with pressure from a stout Idaho defensive front that singlehandedly stalled five of Eastern’s 11 drives.

Barriere’s mobility proved key down the stretch. He escaped crumbling pockets for big gainers in critical situations to help EWU outscore UI 14-0 in the fourth.

“We did a good job at times, then at times we didn’t contain him,” Petrino said of Barriere, who went 18-for-38 passing for two touchdowns and 309 yards, rushing for 40 more. “When he broke contain and got out on the edge, that’s when he’s dangerous.”

Said Barriere: “They game-planned to bring pressure, try to get me out of my groove. Honestly, I thought they did a good job bringing pressure and making me step up.”

Borisch went 5-for-11 for 74 yards and a 25-yard scoring pass off a rollout on fourth-and-1 to fullback Logan Kendall early in the third period. Borisch’s physical runs of 12, 10, 9, 9 and 7 yards pushed Idaho into Eastern territory.

He was asked to take the occasional shot on first looks in the Vandals' passing game, but most of Borisch's fortune through the air came when he was on the move. His limited reps at the position and the swirling wind in Cheney definitely didn't help.

Barriere connected with a striding, single-covered Talolo Limu-Jones (four receptions, 140 yards) down the far sideline for a 66-yard strike to answer Kendall’s touchdown.

Borisch responded two drives later, after an EWU four-and-out, with a 23-yard sidearm flip to Johnson, then cut back on an option for a 13-yard score to put Idaho on top 31-24 midway through the third.

“We had some different formations and different schemes, and different misdirections that helped us,” Petrino said. “But ultimately it was just guys blocking hard and guys running hard.”

Idaho’s two opening series in its unfamiliar, bunched-up formations turned uncertainty into sudden optimism.

On the first, Borisch and Johnson overpowered the Eagles as UI’s offense chewed away seven minutes. For his encore, Borisch called his own number with a 42-yard dart up the middle, and Johnson bulldozed in at the goal line.

EWU's pretty offense then logged 10 consecutive points after forcing a three-and-out. Eagle chunk gains through the air mostly made up a 15-play, 95-yard touchdown drive that ended with Merritt’s first score three minutes before the half. The teams were tied at 17 at intermission.

Up until the late stages, Eastern’s established, explosive attack was matched equally by the Vandals’ new style and surprise signal-caller.

“I think everybody fought their tails off, and we just came up a little short,” Petrino said. “But it wasn’t because we didn’t fight and play hard, that’s for sure.”

ADDITIONAL HITS — Borisch's 205 yards rank No. 10 in single-game program history. No Big Sky player has posted as many in one contest this season.

According to Idaho Athletics, his ground yardage total is probably the No. 2 all-time for a Vandal quarterback, behind Willis "Wee Willie" Smith's 282 yards versus Gonzaga in 1932.

UI's front seven registered five tackles for loss, with senior edge-rusher Charles Akanno totaling 1.5. Nate DeGraw and Leonick Tamba registered their first sacks of the year.

Star linebackers Christian Elliss and Tre Walker (20 combined tackles) quite clearly affected Eastern's ground capabilities early, though the Eagles still managed about 60 yards more than the average rushing mark the Vandals permit. EWU's Tamarick Pierce added 71 yards on 16 carries, including a 21-yard scamper to get the Eagles in scoring position late.

Some of the uptick can be attributed to Barriere's newfound trust in his running versus UI.

"When we played them the first time, there were opportunities I could have used my legs, but I didn't," he said. "After watching film, I saw what I could have done better and tried to apply it to this game, especially in the fourth quarter, because that's when we were down and I needed to give it my all."

Idaho's defensive box was also largely to thank for Barriere's 20 incompletions. The Vandals' secondary stepped up with back-to-back pass break-ups, fizzling two drives in the third quarter. But a defensive pass interference on third-and-5 extended what would turn out to be Eastern's game-winning drive. 

Hayden Hatten made another highlight-reel snag for his only reception on the afternoon, which went 16 yards. Borisch rolled right and floated one toward the far sideline. Hatten laid out fully, extending himself for a two-handed, 16-yard fingertip grab. Cade Coffey soon after knocked in a 30-yard field goal to tie it at 17.

UI running backs Nick Romano and Dylan Thigpen, who typically rotate in the lineup more frequently, combined for just 13 yards on seven carries. Idaho's speed came from Borisch, and its power Johnson. The Vandals' traditional handoffs — their non-option ones — never really amounted to much.

Idaho 14  3  14  0  — 31

EWU   7  10  7  14 — 38

First Quarter

EWU: Roberson 18 pass from Barriere (Harrison kick), 12:56

UI: Borisch 4 run (Coffey kick), 6:00.

UI: Johnson 3 run (Coffey kick), 3:49.

Second Quarter

EWU: FG Harrison 23, 14:42.

EWU: Merritt 3 run (Harrison kick), 7:39.

UI: FG Coffey 30, 3:01.

Third Quarter

UI: Kendall 25 pass from Borisch (Coffey kick), 10:48.

EWU: Limu-Jones 66 pass from Barriere (Harrison kick), 10:11.

UI: Borisch 13 run (Coffey kick), 6:55.

Fourth Quarter

EWU: Merritt 21 run (Harrison kick), 12:41.

EWU: Merritt 14 run (Harrison kick), 6:50.

UI EWU

First downs 20 27

Rushes-yards 59-278 35-167

Passing 74 309

Comp-Att-Int 5-11-2 18-38-0

Return Yards 155 38

Punts-Avg. 3-43.3 4-35.8

Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0

Penalty-Yards 4-38 6-80

Time of Possession 36:23 23:37

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING: Idaho, Za. Borisch 33-205, Ro. Johnson 15-54, Ni. Romano 5-11, Lo. Kendall 4-6, Dy. Thigpen 2-2. E. Washington, Ta. Pierce 16-71, De. Merritt 9-64, Er. Barriere 8-40, Team 2-(minus 8).

PASSING: Idaho, Za. Borisch 5-11-2-74. E. Washington, Er. Barriere 18-38-0-309.

RECEIVING: Idaho, Lo. Kendall 1-25, Ro. Johnson 2-23, Ha. Hatten 1-16, Co. Whitney 1-10. E. Washington, Ta. Limu-Jones 4-140, Fr. Roberson 5-53, Ef. Chism III 3-43, An. Stell Jr. 2-41, An. Boston 2-13, De. Merritt 1-11, Bl. Gobel 1-8.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.

EWU 38, Idaho 31

Stars of the game

ZACH BORISCH, a utility player/special teamer making his first career start at quarterback, posted 205 yards rushing and two scores on 33 attempts in UI’s new-look, option offense. He became the first Vandal to top 200 yards rushing since Deonte Jackson in 2007. EWU signal-caller ERIC BARRIERE, a senior All-American, threw for 309 yards on 18-for-38 passing, besting UI’s secondary on a handful of deep balls and keeping late drives afloat with his legs. CHARLES AKANNO (1½ TFLs) spearheaded a strong effort from the Vandals’ defensive front.

Key plays

EWU corner Keshaun King darted in front of Borisch’s second-and-19 pass toward the sideline early in the fourth quarter for an interception, setting Eastern’s offense up near midfield with the game tied at 31. The Eagles proceeded to take their first lead since midway through the second quarter.

Up next

The Vandals (2-3) wrap up their six-game Big Sky-only spring season at 1 p.m. Pacific on Saturday at Northern Arizona (2-2).