Action flick: High-powered Eastern Washington has eyes set on a January trip north of Dallas for FCS title game
Eastern Washington has no intention of letting the FCS Playoff Committee dictate its postseason fate.
The enigmatic, injury-plagued Eagles of 2017 did, leading to what was widely considered a playoff snub when 7-4 wasn’t enough to crack the 24-team field.
An outright Big Sky Conference title is the guarantee ticket, something that’s eluded EWU two of the past three seasons.
Now the conference’s preseason favorite, the eighth-ranked Eagles head into Year 2 of the Aaron Best regime with a “Leave no doubt” credo, spearheaded by one of the top quarterbacks in the country in All-American Gage Gubrud.
Offense: For the third straight year, Gubrud, a two-time Walter Payton Award finalist, is the trigger man for one of the most potent offenses in the country.
All the former walk-on from McMinnville, Ore., has done is register nearly 10,000 total yards (8,568 passing, 887 rushing) and break a slew of scoring records in just 23 games, 17 of which he’s won.
With the return of nine starters and a veteran offensive line – All-Big Sky Conference center Spencer Blackburn anchors a unit that collectively has nearly 100 career starts – his numbers could be even gaudier this fall.
But that could depend on the development of a group of receivers who lacked a consistent, downfield threat in 2017, a commodity EWU had in previous years.
The Eagles return Nsimba Webster (693 yards in 2017) along with Terence Grady, Zach Eagle and half-dozen other options with game experience. Grady, a 6-foot-5 target, was expected to be a viable deep threat last season, but sat out most of the year with an injury. Andrew Boston, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman, is also expected to give the group a boost.
Gubrud said he aims to cut down on turnovers, having thrown a total of 26 interceptions the last two seasons.
“A lot of times when you’re forcing things and trying to make a play, you make a poor decision,” Gubrud said. “Or you weren’t super sure what the defense was doing and you weren’t comfortable with the route concept. It’s about being better aware of everything going on, and I think I’ve improved in that area.”
When EWU elects to keep the ball on the ground, it has proven options in speedy backs Antoine Custer and Sam McPherson. The two combined for more than 1,200 rushing yards last season, with Custer, an All-Big Sky Conference pick, churning out 776 yards with 10 touchdowns. Gubrud, who often calls his own number in the Eagles’ zone-read offense, has averaged more than 440 yards rushing the past two seasons.
Best and offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder have committed to an improved running game since taking over last year. The Eagles ran the ball 5 percent more in 2017 than in 2016.
Gubrud said he’ll do whatever it takes if leads to a trip to Frisco, Texas.
“I just want to win a national title. If that means I have to throw for 5,000 yards again, or run the ball, or let (Custer and McPherson) work, I’m good with that.” Gubrud said. “And I think you’ll see more of a mixture this year depending on the games.”
Blackburn, who will be a four-year starter, said he has gained a bigger appreciation for the postseason having missed it as a freshman and junior.
“Now we know the difference between a semifinal team and one that doesn’t make the playoffs, and the work it takes to get there. How just a play or two can change everything,” Blackburn said.
Defense: With the return of eight starters and more than a dozen others with substantial experience, defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s defense believes it has the means to shore up its 2017 deficiencies.
The Eagles return almost their entire defensive backfield, both of their starting linebackers in Ketner Kupp and and Kurt Calhoun, and five defensive linemen who earned starts.
With a quick-strike offense that ranks among the lowest in time of possession, EWU’s defense inherently spends more time on the field.
As a result, it yields more yards and points. Ranking 115th in total defense (465 yards allowed per game) last season wasn’t good by any measure, though.
In recent years, EWU has atoned for yielding mass yardage by forcing turnovers. It didn’t do much of that last season, either, coming up with just 13 takeaways.
Senior safety Mitch Fettig led the team in tackles (92) last season and was named to the All-Big Sky Conference team. Josh Lewis, a three-year starting corner, will also be key in the Eagles’ base 4-2-5 defense.
But perhaps the biggest boon to the Eagles’ defense is the return of Jay-Tee Tiuli, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound nose tackle. Tiuli earned All-Big Sky first-team honors in 2016 before using a medical redshirt in 2017. His replacement last season, Dylan Ledbetter, now moves over to defensive tackle, giving EWU’s defensive front an imposing duo.
On the edge of the Eagles’ defensive line are senior Keenan Williams and junior Jim Townsend, who redshirted in 2017 after earning time the previous two years.
“As a defense we’ve always said we wanted to be the best in the Big Sky and one of the best in the nation. That’s our goal,” Williams said. “We have a lot of depth and we’re going to be good this year.”
Special teams: Roldan Alcobendas is adding punting to his kicking duties this season, replacing Jordan Dascalo, the Eagles’ lone All-Big Sky Conference pick last season.
EWU ranked seventh in the country in punt-return coverage last season, and that had much to do with Dascalo’s booming kicks. Alcobendas has been reliable in the kicking game, averaging 60 yards a kickoff. He’s also hit 20 of 31 field goal attempts and 141 of 146 of his PATs.
Dre’Sonte Dorton, one the top kickoff return men at the FCS level last season, looks to build off his 27.7-yard average. Zach Eagle is back to return punts.
Coaching: Considering the talent EWU graduated when Best was given the keys to the program in January 2017, coupled with the Eagles’ brawny schedule last season, a 7-4 record and No. 22 ranking in the final coaches poll wasn’t a disaster. But as Best has said, missing the playoffs was an anomaly he doesn’t want to repeat. Beau Baldwin is a tough act to follow, but Best and offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder still put out an offense that ranked in the top 10 in yards, and did so by adding new wrinkles to the playbook, namely an increase in rushing.
“We’ve been able to (make the playoffs) for quite some time, and (missing the playoffs) was rare when you talk about the last nine years,” Best said. “Our duty is to find ourselves a (postseason) game, and find some luck along the way.”
A three-game gauntlet in October may decide if Eastern Washington ends its short postseason drought. Locking up with defending Big Sky co-champions Southern Utah (home) and Weber State (away) in consecutive Saturdays will be a tough task, followed by a bye week and a home contest against former FBS member Idaho, which is also expected to finish in the upper tier of the Big Sky. If EWU wins at least two games in that stretch – especially the road contest at Weber State, a preseason top 10 team – it should be in good shape. If not, it could be sweating out another FCS playoff selection show.