FBC-CWURoots

Central Washington University running back Michael Roots sprints down the sideline during a game against Western Oregon University on Oct. 13, 2018 at Tomlinson Stadium in Ellensburg, Wash. Roots was Central's leading rusher last season and heads a strong group of backs this season, which begins at Idaho on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Oliver Hamlin, Yakima Herald-Republic file)

A stiff road challenge to start the season will be nothing new for Central Washington when it takes the field at Idaho on Saturday night.

First-year coach Chris Fisk knows it’s never easy to face an FCS opponent, something the Wildcats have done in two of the past four seasons. This will be their fifth straight road trip in Week 1, and Fisk said opening against a bigger program provides other benefits along with a financial boost for CWU’s program.

“I think that one is you want to give those kids the opportunity to go play up a level and see what they’ve got and see how they stack up against great teams like Idaho,” Fisk said. “We learned a lot about ourselves last year against Eastern Washington.”

The 58-13 loss to the No. 9 Eagles preceded a three-game winning streak for Central Washington, all by at least 30 points. That’s become the norm for the Wildcats, who have lost eight of their past nine season openers and posted a .716 winning percentage (63-25) in all other games during that time.

Early tests give the coaching staff valuable data points for key decisions on who should be starting and playing in critical times. That’s especially important this season for CWU’s new staff members as they familiarize themselves with a young, somewhat inexperienced roster.

Fisk said a few position battles continued through the final week of practice, including the all-important quarterback question. Weber State junior transfer Braden Miles, sophomore Christian Moore and redshirt freshmen Tai-John Mizutani and Canon Racanelli all could earn the difficult task of replacing GNAC offensive player of the year Reilly Hennessey.

The Wildcats’ backfield brings much more proven experience, led by first team all-league junior tailback Michael Roots. Zach Floyd, Eric Wilkes and Rey Green should also see some carries against an Idaho defense that allowed 231 rushing yards per game last season and gave up 331 on the ground in a 79-7 loss at No. 14 Penn State last week.

“It’s as good a running back group as we’ve had here at Central,” said Fisk, who arrived in Ellensburg three years ago to become the offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator. “It’s a great group of guys that will work really hard.”

He’s also optimistic about a defense with nine returning starters, highlighted by first team all-GNAC selections Tevin Gray and Billy Greer. They’ll provide leadership along with fellow seniors like defensive backs Chaz McKenzie and Marcus Schimmelfennig.

A proven secondary should be beneficial against Idaho’s experienced passing attack, led by quarterback Mason Petrino. He threw for nearly 2,000 yards with 15 touchdowns last season, and Fisk said the senior from Pullman will be tough to contain.

“They’ve got very good receivers and they’ve got a lot of starts in the quarterback position,” Fisk said. “That’s always a dangerous combination.”

The Central offense will depend heavily on its offensive line, particularly two-time first team all-GNAC senior Nick Streubel. Redshirt junior Will Ortner also adds some key experience to an offensive line that paved the way for 272.6 yards per game on better than six yards per carry last season.

Nothing significant changed in the Wildcats under Fisk, who hopes to continue the success of his predecessor, Ian Schumacher. So far they seem to be adapting well, Fisk said, and he’s eager to finally get on the field.

The schedule won’t get any easier next week when No. 2 Ferris State visits Ellensburg, but Fisk insisted his team can’t look ahead. Instead, the Wildcats must stay completely focused on Idaho as they look to repeat their last trip to the state in 2009, when they roared out to a 26-0 lead and beat FCS Idaho State 33-22.

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe