ELLENSBURG — Central Washington’s embracing a host of new challenges as it seeks back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 13 years.
Before making their Lone Star Conference debut, the Wildcats open with a trip to Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich., on Thursday for the program’s first-ever game against Division II’s No. 1 team. Senior safety Jahleel Breland, one of three first-team all-GNAC players back in the secondary, said Central’s ready to take advantage of its significant experience throughout the roster.
“I think we’re a confident team no matter who we go up against,” Breland said. “We know that the guys we’ve got on this field right now, we can go toe-to-toe with anybody.”
The Wildcats have won five of nine games against LSC opponents in the past five years and earned the No. 3 spots in the preseason media poll. Running back Tyler Flanagan said he still feels like they’ll be looked at as underdogs, so the nine-game round-robin schedule gives them a great chance to prove themselves.
Head Coach Chris Fisk called it the toughest schedule CWU’s played in recent memory, which could be valuable when the playoff committee makes its selections in November. After opening conference play against the bottom four teams in the LSC poll, the Wildcats face the other five teams in five straight weeks.
That stretch begins with a home game against Midwestern State, the defending LSC champs who lost 30-20 at Central last season. Then three weeks later, the Wildcats will try to avenge their only regular-season Division II loss of 2021 at No. 8 Angelo State.
“We’ve got a lot of familiar faces back,” Fisk said. “The challenge of last season was a lot of injuries, so a lot of guys got to play.”
Central played Angelo State without quarterback Quincy Glasper, defensive lineman Isaiah Carbajal and cornerback Nate Perkins due to injury, and Flanagan couldn’t carry the football in his first game back from a separated shoulder. All of them should be back and ready to play key roles this fall.
Flanagan’s expecting to split carries with a deep running back group featuring North Dakota transfer Cameron McKinney and Stephen F. Austin transfer Tre’Jon Henderson. New running backs coach Chris Schlicting brings valuable experience as a former offensive lineman at Eastern Washington.
“I’ve just been diving into the film, talking with Coach Fisk, getting to know the O-line play more,” Flanagan said. “(Schlicting) knows a lot about line play so I’ll be talking to him a lot and so I feel like that’s helped me understand a little more 400, 500-level football.”
As a pass blocker, he appreciates the elusiveness and playmaking ability of Glasper, who ran for 218 yards last season. Fisk expects the sophomore to once again rely heavily on his top receiver, Darius Morrison, plus Tai-John Mizutani and Idaho State transfer Demonte Horton could provide solid targets.
On the defensive side, Fisk and Breland know it won’t be possible to simply replace linebacker Donte Hamilton, the GNAC’s defensive player of the year. Between him and fellow senior Zach Stuecklein, Central graduated the two players responsible for more than half of the team’s 29.5 sacks.
Only Breland recorded more tackles than Hamilton with 86 in 11 games. He’s confident an experienced front seven can make up for what they’ve lost.
“You got guys like Isaiah Carbajal, Kai Gamble, Christian Penny, and all of those guys are just hungry to get to the quarterback,” Breland said. “They make our job easy in the back because they do a good job in the pass game and the ball gets out quick.”
They’ll face a big test immediately against Ferris State, the Division II leader in yards and points per game last season. The Bulldogs visited Ellensburg in 2019 and looked unstoppable for much of a 62-28 win over the Wildcats.
Although the Ferris State offense still features plenty of explosive athletes, it did lose the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player of the year, quarterback Jared Barnhart, GLIAC offensive lineman of the year Dylan Pasquali and star running back Tyler Minor. Beating the defending national champs on the road wouldn’t be unprecedented for Central, which beat No. 2 Minnesota Duluth 13-10 on the road in 2009 and routed North Dakota 42-7 in 2002.