UNLV Football: First Look at the Eastern Washington Eagles
The Rebels will get a chance to start 2021 off with a win against FCS Eastern Washington.
An FCS foe not to be overlooked.
UNLV Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
The UNLV Rebels will have a tough non-conference schedule this fall and it all starts with the Eastern Washington Eagles, who will visit Allegiant Stadium to kick off the 2021 season.
Location: Cheney, Washington
Conference: Big Sky
2020 Record: 5-2 (5-1 Big Sky)
Head Coach: Aaron Best (fourth year, 31-14 overall). Best looks like an EWU lifer after spending a quarter-century with the Eagles in one capacity or another and the program has hardly skipped a beat since he replaced Beau Baldwin at the helm in 2017. After reaching the FCS title game in 2018, Eastern Washington reached the playoffs once again in the spring campaign earlier this year.
They did so on the strength of an offense that was one of the nation’s best, averaging 6.54 yards per play and 37.7 points per game, both of which ranked seventh in the FCS. While it remains to be seen how the relatively quick turnaround from a spring season to one in the fall during the same calendar year will affect player health and effectiveness, on paper the Eagles should continue to be seen as a playoff contender in 2021.
QB Eric Barriere
For the Eagles, it all starts under center with the senior captain from Inglewood, California. He took on the starting role during EWU’s run to the national title game three years ago and hasn’t let up since, compiling a 60% career completion rate in 38 games while averaging 8.2 yards per play and throwing 75 touchdowns.
Over the last two seasons, Eastern Washington hasn’t been shy about putting the game in his hands, letting him throw over 700 times and, as a result, averaging well over 300 yards per game. It’s no wonder, then, that he was selected as the Big Sky’s Offensive Player of the Year and finished as the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award. For a UNLV secondary that’s found some pieces for its foundation but still needs a few more, it’ll be important to find ways to slow Barriere down.
Eric Barriere 👀👀👀👀 pic.twitter.com/qOG6eYcwy8
— Ben Glassmire (@BenGlassmireNFL) April 11, 2021
DB Anthany Smith
While most of the attention is usually given to EWU’s offense, Smith is perhaps the Eagles’ best defensive performer and doesn’t deserve to fly under the radar. In the 2021 spring season, he earned first-team all-Big Sky honors by leading the team in tackles (44) and hauling in one interception to go along with a pair of pass breakups.
DL Mitchell Johnson
Like Barriere and Smith, Johnson also earned a spot on the all-Big Sky first team. He made his hay in the trenches as an edge rusher, collecting 26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks for the Eagles, so it isn’t inconceivable that he could create headaches for a reloading Rebels offensive line if they aren’t prepared.
WR Talolo Limu-Jones
Limu-Jones was another of Eastern Washington’s first-team all-conference selections in the spring by virtue of being Eric Barriere’s favorite target and, by extension, one of the top pass catchers in the FCS ranks. He led the Eagles with 48 catches, 759 receiving yards and four touchdowns, so the Rebels’ defensive backfield will need to be prepared for his ability to go over the top.
OL Tristen Taylor
Keeping Barriere upright is paramount to EWU’s offensive successes and, thankfully, the Eagles also happen to have one of the FCS’s best offensive linemen, too. With 46 career starts already under his belt, Taylor accomplished the rare feat of becoming a four-time all-Big Sky selection by, you guessed it, making the first team after the spring season.
If the players above didn’t give it away, the Eagles are all about throwing the football. Barriere averaged over 42 pass attempts per game in the spring while EWU’s top two running backs, Tamarick Pierce and Dennis Merritt, combined for just 22 carries per game. That kind of rough 2:1 pass-run split gives you a sense of what the Eagles will want to do against UNLV, which means that the Rebels’ young defensive backs will need to be prepared to get their hands on the ball.
It’ll be especially important for UNLV to figure out how to make stops when the chips are down as well, since EWU scored 23 touchdowns in 31 trips to the red zone and converted 46.2% of their third-down tries.
For as potent as the Eastern Washington offense can be, the defense can be softened up. They allowed 5.49 yards per play and 26.9 points per game, both of which were slightly under the FCS averages, and beyond Johnson and fellow defensive lineman Joshua Jerome they weren’t terribly disruptive, either, with just 13 sacks in their seven games.
It’s telling that the team who eventually knocked the Eagles from the playoffs, North Dakota State, was proficient in running the ball and keeping Barriere and company off the field with a sizeable time-of-possession advantage. That seems to be the direction that UNLV will want to go under head coach Marcus Arroyo, especially since running back Charles Williams is back for one more season, but we’ll have to wait and see how the Rebels choose to challenge this EWU defense.
UNLV isn’t a stranger to losing games it probably shouldn’t — look no further than Howard’s shocking upset back in 2018 — and while Arroyo’s Rebels were definitely down and out last year, a full off-season to bring things together should help them be much improved against what is a potent FCS foe.
This is the kind of game that may end up a little too close for comfort, but the Rebels should have enough defensive pieces to outlast the powerful Eagles offense. UNLV 35, Eastern Washington 31