Eastern Washington is coming off of a 10-3 season in 2021 in which they made it to the second round of the FCS playoffs. The 2022 season will be the fifth year for head coach Best, who’s spent his entire career as a player, grad assistant, and coach at EWU since he enrolled there in 1996. But it’ll be the first season for new OC/QB coach Chapin, who comes over from Div-II Sioux Falls. The Eagles are also replacing almost all of their best offensive players from last season: longtime starting quarterback and Walter Payton winner Eric Barriere, near-thousand yard rusher Dennis Merritt, top two wideouts Andrew Boston and Talolo Limu-Jones, and Conner Crist, Matt Shook, and Tristen Taylor who were starters at center and both tackles.
I reviewed six of EWU’s games last year and their opener last Saturday against Tennessee State. In terms of offensive structure I don’t see much in the way of changes, it remains a spread-option offense which is almost always in 10- or 11-personnel, and passes the ball more than twice as often as they rush.
It looks like some of that lost personnel, however, is proving more difficult to replicate. I think the Eagles look fine at wide receiver where they return the next four receivers from last year plus a true sophomore who’s ahead of schedule, and the tight ends are the same as last year. But I don’t see the same burst and vision from the returning former backup RBs, and the offensive line still seems to be a work in progress.
The toughest player to describe is new starter #2 QB Talkington, a longtime backup who had 64 passing attempts prior to this season. On the one hand, his explosive passing ability almost single-handedly won their opener with four passing TDs and no INTs, and his scrambling was the second-best part of the offense. On the other, he left an awful lot of yards on the table between frequent inaccurate passes and ill-advised throws to well-covered receivers; he’s a shorter QB at 5’10” and his throwing motion lacks a lot of polish.
Passing was the strength of the Eagles’ potent offense in 2021 – they held the top rank in FCS in total offense with 554.5 yards per game, which was driven by their #3 ranking in passing offense at 399.4 passing yards per game.
In EWU’s opener, that seems to have taken a step back. Overall passing efficiency was underwater at 26 successes vs 27 failures on designed passing plays, given the down & distance. That’s sunk somewhat by the inclusion of a really ineffective screen game, 3 vs 7, but buoyed by Talkington’s very productive scrambles, 6 vs 3. Excluding those and just looking at pure downfield passing from the pocket, it came to a perfectly even 17 vs 17 efficiency. Frequent incompletions brought the adjusted yards per attempt down to an equally mediocre 7.6 average.
Where the offense shined was explosive passing and yards after catch – 17% of all dropbacks gained 15+ yards, a much better than average figure. I think that’s partly due to Talkington’s eagerness to try the deep ball, and partly due to some nifty moves by the receivers after the catch to break tackles and get more. Some examples:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – The inside step by #17 WR Ulm completely fools the CB, nice change of direction to resume the go without losing speed. Good ball placement on the deep downfield throw, only a minor slowdown for the catch.
- :08 – This formation was pretty rare but I selected the clip because it encapsulates Talkington’s improvised running so well. The backer tracks the WR in motion instead of staying on the QB so there’s a lot of field to run into here, rather than forcing a throw he just takes it and makes a move for more instead of sliding.
- :24 – Tough throw from the far hash with pressure coming to arguably EWU’s most dynamic receiver, #89 WR Chism. As was typical, he makes some extra moves for more yardage.
- :33 – Ball placement and the diving catch avoiding the defender here are perfect.
The screen passes were almost all to the outside and those that failed did so for the typical reason, which was poor perimeter blocking. About half of failed designed downfield passing plays — plus most of the times the QB was flushed, even though Talkington salvaged a lot of those — came down to poor blocking by the offensive line. In the opener, EWU kept the same LT and LG the entire game (last year’s starting LG and RG, respectively), but rotated six different guys at the other three spots on a drive-by-drive basis, and to me it looked more like open tryouts rather than a plan to keep guys fresh.
The other half came down to poor throws by Talkington. It was his first game as a starter and I’m not interested in piling on or making a “lowlight” reel of them, but bad ball placement or locking onto a receiver even though he wasn’t shaking the coverage happened at a much greater rate than I’m used to seeing from the excellent Eagles QBs over the years. I think he’s got quite a bit of room for improvement to catch up to Barriere and the other greats Roos Field has seen.
Here are some representative examples of unsuccessful downfield passing plays:
- :00 – The tight end is breaking open off of the mesh and it would have been a big gain with the safety vacating, but Talkington never takes his eyes off the X-receiver despite triple coverage working him to the sideline. I could have shown seven other incompletions like this where there’s no way a covered receiver can make the catch.
- :08 – Three different linemen get beat here and Talkington can’t really step up in the pocket. The one who throws the RG aside gets the swat.
- :16 – This should be a pretty simple throw to a wide open, stationary receiver 5 yards downfield, but it shows how violent Talkington’s throwing motion is, which results in inaccuracy.
- :23 – This is a three-man rush from the defense, and it’s against what I think was the better configuration on the right side of the line. The sack itself isn’t representative as it was the only one of the day (though Talkington kind of amazingly wriggled out of two others), but the way the linemen are playing high and not winning with leverage was common to all pocket collapses.
In keeping with last year’s rushing performance – ranked just #47 in FCS with 155.1 rushing yards per game in 2021 – in the opener the Eagles’ rushing offense was unremarkable in all three figures I track. Their per-play efficiency was one play above water, 12 successes vs 11 failures, though Talkington on read-option keeps accounted for 2 vs 1 of those so the running backs alone were one play underwater. More to the point, they had just 4.2 YPC, on the low end of average in my experience for the adjusted number, and only about 8.5% of runs gained 10+ yards, and I’ve found that anything in single digits is pretty poor.
I don’t have enough data to evaluate the new starting backs compared to Merritt, and it was curious that the back with the best personal YPC average last year (#19 RB Lewis with 6.6) didn’t play on Saturday. Regardless, mostly what I’m seeing is footwork and assignment problems with the offensive line, as they’re simply not opening the holes for the backs – and TSU’s defensive front was pretty well depleted in this game with several early injuries and an ejection.
Here’s a representative sample of the entire rushing offense:
- :00 – Inside zone was EWU’s least effective play by a pretty wide margin, there’s just no push here. I’m not sure if the RPO tag is live here but it didn’t pull the backer to the sideline at all.
- :06 – Again I’m not sure if the QB has clearance to actually throw the RPO but at any rate it’s the correct read to keep the ball both times. A better second-level block by the LT would have opened this up for serious yards, but Talkington is a courageous runner regardless.
- :14 – Power blocking wasn’t as bad as zone, in fact they had a couple of elegantly blocked inside power runs to start the second possession, but both of the pullers falling over and getting tackled by the RT is the opposite of that.
- :19 – Outside zone was the bread & butter play in the run game, getting away from the box and relying on the backs’ speed and decent perimeter blocking instead.
Eastern Washington is replacing their defensive coordinator as well: DC Copp was promoted after spending the last two years as the Eagles’ DT coach. The structure is the same as last season – nominally it’s a fairly traditional 4-3, but since almost every opponent they played uses 10- or 11-personnel on all but a handful of reps, they’re almost always in a 4-2-5 in which they pull the SAM and use a nickel safety. The Eagles bring back their entire defensive line and all but one member of their secondary rotation - Calin Criner, on the field virtually every rep in 2021 and who led the unit with 83 tackles. However they’ve lost everyone from last year’s experienced linebacker corps, most significantly Ty Graham, Cale Lindsay, and Jack Sendelbach who combined for 260 tackles and 8 sacks in 2021, and they’re now starting a couple of transfers at the position.
EWU’s defense wasn’t the strength of the team last year – among all 123 FCS teams in 2021 they ranked #71 in total defense with 383.2 yards allowed per game (#74 against the run, #62 against the pass). That was bolstered by a couple of key stats, however – the defense took the ball away from opponents 23 times, good for the #17 ranking in turnovers gained in FCS, and they only allowed 30.5% of opponent 3rd down conversions, the #8 ranking in FCS (although they had the #93 ranking in 4th down conversions allowed at 58.1%).
The data from the 2022 opener against Tennessee State is a very mixed bag. I think TSU’s quarterback is a much better runner than passer, but it seemed the Tigers didn’t want to acknowledge this since their called run-to-pass ratio outside garbage time was only 4:3. The Eagles were very effective at stopping their passing attack, but it’s hard to take the true measure of that when so many passes were completely inaccurate. EWU had a great havoc rate, earning three turnovers and producing a sack, scramble, or throwaway on one-third of all of TSU’s downfield dropbacks, but with an opposing QB so overeager to break the pocket and with significant ball security, footing, and RB mesh issues it’s tough to contextualize that too.
Probably the best way to statistically describe the confusing nature of EWU’s defensive performance last Saturday is that their overall defensive success rate was over 56% on a per-play basis outside of garbage time, a pretty efficient number, but their explosive play rate was terrible, with 13.7% gaining 20+ yards (ten plays), including 6.85% gaining 40+ yards (five plays). The first of those, a 67-yard TD run on TSU’s very first snap, was a crazy broken play that the camera didn’t capture properly, but here are the other four, which I trust need no narration:
TSU employs a run-heavy zone-read option offense, and EWU took advantage of their opponent’s poor passing performance, curious lack of an RPO game, and frequent QB misreads to crash the backers into the line on most snaps. That produced some pretty dramatic stops, and there’s a streak of four consecutive 3-outs in the 2nd quarter which I think result from this strategy. Here are some representative examples of how the Eagles stopped the run:
- :00 – I’d describe these six as the starting defensive front. Good penetration here by the line, and watch the high safety – he’s not worried about anybody leaking out or the possibility of an RPO, he just immediately triggers and is part of the tackle.
- :05 – I think #5 DE M. Johnson impressed me the most for his havoc potential, here he’s the unblocked and read end but still makes the tackle. Good job keeping his shoulders square to the line and clouding the read.
- :11 – I have the most positive plays on the line by #55 DT Jerome. Here he’s getting into the running lane to catch the back while the safety cleans up.
- :17 – Here both starting backers (#54 LB Banks and #33 LB Tommasini, transfers from Rice and Idaho respectively) are immediately crashing with zero concern for the possibility of an RPO slant behind them. Again a great move to get off the TE’s block and make the tackle by Johnson.
But on balance EWU never really contained TSU’s run game. On a per play basis, the Eagles defense succeeded on 20 designed rushes vs 23 failures, underwater at 46.5%. And 13 of those rushes gained 10+ yards, over 30%, which is one of the highest explosive rush rates I’ve ever seen. That resulted in an adjusted yard per carry average of 9.6, which is an absolutely crazy number. Even if I artificially cap all runs at 20 yards to limit the distorting effect of enormous runs, it still comes out to more than 7.2 YPC which would be an exceptional figure.
The issue was two-fold for EWU’s rush defense: first, if the aggressive backers didn’t immediately stop the run, the middle of the field is vacated for chunk yardage; second, the safeties seemed to be taking some pretty poor angles and struggled to consistently make open-field tackles to stop a rush from going explosive. Some examples:
- :00 – Nobody in the front is winning their blocks here and they’re freely allowing the OL into the second level.
- :08 – The DT isn’t getting into the running lane at all and I have no idea why the LB is heading outside since the DE is already staying outside. The OL at the second level doesn’t have anything to do.
- :15 – Four of the five secondary members are to the field and the playside backer immediately crashes inside and can’t help with a pitch to the outside. The backside backer gets taken down and there’s no high safety to stop this.
- :34 – The backer is getting blocked 15 yards down the field on this power run.
EWU’s passing defense was much better, albeit against a fairly weak passing attack. The Eagles defense succeeded on 21 designed passing plays vs just 9 failures, or 70%, which would be well above championship caliber if it were sustained the entire season, and only allowed 13% of designed passing plays to gain 15+ yards.. The Tigers’ offense only had 187 adjusted passing yards, and more than half of those came on two plays (the first and third clips in the first defensive video). Those two enormous plays dragged the adjusted yards per attempt figure up to 8.5, which would be pretty good for the Tigers, but using the same 20-yard cap as above pulls it back down to a more telling 5.9.
Unfortunately I don’t think last Saturday’s performance against the pass gives us much useful information on whether the Eagles have improved on last year’s modest pass defense stats. My general observation is that I think their d-line has some pretty good disruptive potential but I think the secondary, even with the amount of veterans it has, isn’t as reliable as it needs to be in coverage. Here’s a representative sample of all plays in downfield pass defense:
- :00 – It’s 3rd & long and so a cover-1 blitz is pretty common. The high safety prevents a big explosive play but the WR has the DB beaten badly off the break.
- :14 – I think the most significant addition to the rotation compared to last year is big #98 DT Paleso’o, who sends the RT flying comically on this play. The twist works and Johnson gets the sack.
- :25 – Big returning starter #99 DT Davis is really collapsing the pocket here, hurrying the throw and making it inaccurate, though I think a well placed ball would have worked here.
- :31 – Good pursuit by Johnson on this rollout turns this throw into one the QB probably doesn’t have in his inventory, but the tight end has broken open and a well placed ball would let him turn upfield for a 20+ yard gain.