Ketner Kupp’s smile widened when asked if he was looking forward to facing Southern Utah, a team that upset Eastern Washington 46-28 last season and ultimately derailed its postseason hopes.
He showed restraint with a one-word reply.
“Absolutely,” said Kupp, a senior linebacker whose fifth-ranked Eagles (4-1, 2-0 Big Sky) face the Thunderbirds (0-4, 0-1) at noon Saturday at Roos Field in a Big Sky Conference game.
EWU corner Josh Lewis has also been champing at the bit for another crack at Southern Utah, the defending conference co-champion whose winless September included games against Pac-12 teams Arizona and Oregon State.
“Obviously, we’re going to approach every game the same, whether we lost to them or not,” Lewis said. “But we have a sour taste in our mouth when it comes to Southern Utah.
“I saw someone on Twitter called these next two games ‘The Revenge Tour’ – I kind of like that.”
Next week, EWU plays at No. 6 Weber State (3-1, 1-0), a team that clipped the Eagles last season before sharing the Big Sky crown with the Thunderbirds.
Its first chore, though, is slowing down a Southern Utah offense that ranks 11th nationally (481 yards per game).
Behind one of the most seasoned offensive lines in the conference, the Thunderbirds had been moving the football with junior college transfer, Chris Helbig, a dual-threat QB who led SUU in total yards before he went down a potential season-ending injury in a 31-23 loss at Northern Arizona two weeks ago.
SUU now turns to Hawaii transfer Aaron Zwahlen, a strong-armed quarterback who head coach Demario Warren said was in a tight race with Heblig for the starting job in August.
The Thunderbirds, who returned nine starters on offense from a year ago, have had success with the two-pronged running back system of James Felila (260 yards) and Jay Green Jr. (260 yards)
Last season, when EWU was outscored 31-7 in the second half in Cedar City, Utah, Felila tallied 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“They have a good backup quarterback and good running backs,” Lewis said. “It’s like a three-headed monster back there.”
SUU has shown that it can move the chains, but it’s not lighting up the scoreboard. In 19 of the Thunderbirds’ trips to the red zone, just 10 have resulted in touchdowns.
The Thunderbirds, who opened the season with a 31-30 loss at home to North Alabama, a team transitioning from NCAA Division II, have yet to score in the first quarter.
“They’re well coached,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said of SUU. “Their head coach is a defensive-minded guy. They’re coming off a bye week, hungry for their first win. Their winless record isn’t indicative of how good they are, with a couple losses against Pac-12 outfits.”
SUU has struggled defensively, though, surrendering 43 points and 580 yards per game and faces an EWU team that ranks fourth in the country in offense (554 yards per game).
Warren believes EWU is as good as its billing.
“They’re a very mature, talented group,” Warren said of the Eagles. “A lot of experience. The ranking they have is legit.”
EWU’s All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud had one of the worst games of his career against SUU last season, throwing three interceptions. EWU was held to 150 yards in the second half.
Gubrud, who leads the nation in touchdown passes (13), is just 16 yards shy of 10,000 career passing yards.
“We got to Gage a little bit,” Warren said. “We got lucky on a call, an interception on a bubble pass. We made (Gubrud) do things he didn’t usually do, which is what we’ll want to do again Saturday.”