While it's hard to ignore Vernon Adams Jr. and the Eastern offense, you've likely heard far less about EWU's defense. This is primarily because Eastern's defense is not very good, even by FCS standards. In 2013, Eastern ranked 104th out of 122 FCS schools in total defense, surrendering 457 total yards per contest. They fared slightly better in scoring defense, surrendering 28 ppg, 74th in FCS.
When the EWU offense shredded Oregon State for 49 points to open last year, they needed every score. The defense couldn't stop Sean Mannion through the air, and barely held on for the 49-46 victory. When they lost to Towson in the FCS semi-finals to end the year, it was by a score of 35-31. Eastern's defense consistently demanded video game numbers from Adams and Co. in order for the team to comfortably win.
Now, a year later, Eastern has only played in two games and has won both. Their most recent game against Montana-Western was an FCS version of a cupcake game, so the 41-9 score shouldn't surprise. The 56-35 win over Sam Houston State paints a more typical picture of the 2014 Eagles: prolific offense and mediocre defense.
Three All-Big Sky starters are lost in the trenches. DE Evan Day, the one returning starter, has been battling a knee injury and its unclear whether he'll start or even play. That leaves 6'4" 270-pound DT Dylan Zylstra as the most experienced player on the line. Both Day and Zylstra have been All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selections in the past.
DTs Matthew Sommer, Jordan Pulu, and DEs Zackary Johnson and Samson Ebukam make up the rest of the core rotation. Coach Baldwin loves to rotate defensive players, so all of these guys (and more) will likely receive a respectable workload.
I don't know enough about any of these players to analyze their individual play, but the overall talent and experience level of this unit certainly favors Washington. Say what you want about the Husky offensive line against Hawaii, but they are a Pac-12 O-line consisting almost entirely of seniors and weighing, on average, well over 300 pounds. UW has no excuse to lose the line of scrimmage battle.
This is the strength of the defense. Ronnie Hamlin, a super-senior after being granted one last year of eligibility as a result of multiple knee injuries, is the leader of this unit. He has 361 career tackles and can be counted on to run around the field like a mad man, tackling everything in sight. Cody McCarthy's 115 tackles last year is nothing to sneeze at, and sophomore Miquiyah Zamora makes it three returning starters.
As with the defensive line, expect a pretty deep rotation, even with the All-Big Sky talent of Hamlin and McCarthy in the starting eleven. If one unit is going to cause trouble for Washington, it will be the 'backers. They will be the ones attempting to shut down Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman, and they will also be primarily responsible for limiting the scrambling of Cyler Miles.
Hamlin and McCarthy may log 10+ tackles each in a losing effort, as long as they're kept busy taking down backs after 5+ yard gains and chasing down Miles from behind. However, if the LBs spend all night correctly filling gaps and containing the QB, it could help mitigate the imbalance of talent in the trenches.
Both starting corners from '13 are gone. One safety, senior Tevin McDonald, who transferred over from UCLA to have earn All-Big Sky Third Team honors last year, will reclaim his starting spot. So, both teams return exactly one starting defensive back. While this point has been emphasized continuously in the context of Washington's defensive backfield facing Adams and Kupp, Eastern's inexperience could prove even more key to the contest.
Frank Cange and Jake Hoffman should start at corner, but lots of players will rotate in. At safety, one of Todd Raynes and Jordan Tonani should start across from McDonald.
On the defensive line and in the defensive backfield, Eastern lost a combined six starters from last season. While the linebacking corps is highly experienced and should make an impact, EWU looks significantly weaker on this side of the ball than Hawaii. They will also not have the benefit of playing at home.
That being said, the entire Eastern roster should be jacked up and ready to upset Washington at Husky Stadium. Defeating the big-boy program that never gave you an offer would probably feel extremely satisfying, so energy likely won't be a question.
On the other hand, UW survived Hawaii with what seemed like pretty limited levels of emotion and intensity. If that doesn't change in the home-opener at Husky Stadium, than this team has far bigger problems than winning one non-conference game.
The offensive line must win the line of scrimmage more decisively. Hawaii limited the Husky ground game throughout most of last week's game. It really wasn't until that final drive with Lavon Coleman that UW seemed to be imposing their will via the run.
Get Coleman/Washington going early, and only good things happen. Time will be chewed, limiting opportunities for Adams to pick on Washington's young secondary. New chances will be opened up for Miles, who may need a couple series to readjust to live action as a starting quarterback. The young secondary would also be more likely to cheat up against the run, which could give Miles a chance to take early shots downfield against one or fewer deep safeties.
Allow D. Washington to be stuffed for nothing on the first drive, and suddenly Eastern's defense and sideline will be buzzing. They will begin to believe more and more in an upset. Given that Washington's defense could very easily surrender 25+ points to this EWU offense even while playing respectably well, that would not be ideal.
Establish the run. Allow Miles to get comfortable. Limit mistakes. Do it with some energy this time!