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Five reasons Eastern Washington is built for the long haul heading into FSC playoff opener against Nicholls State

November 30, 2018

Washington head coach Chris Petersen made the mistake of betting against Eastern Washington, and it cost him.

A cup of coffee.

The ex-UC Davis quarterback made a friendly wager with his defensive coordinator, former EWU safety Jimmy Lake, on which of their alma maters would win the Nov. 10 meeting in Cheney.

The Eagles ran all over the Aggies in a 59-20 rout and, a week later, both teams earned a share of the Big Sky Conference crown.

“The next morning I had a Starbucks Americano on my desk,” said Lake, who sent a congratulatory text to his former college teammate, EWU head coach Aaron Best.

Considering the damage the fourth-ranked Eagles (9-2) inflicted in their last four games, handling their opponents by an average score of 54-17, now seems like a good time to bet on red.

When third-seeded EWU plays host to 13th-ranked and Southland Conference champion Nicholls State (9-3) on Saturday at Roos Field in the second round of the FCS playoffs, the Eagles will bring their most well-rounded unit into the postseason since 2010, when they won the program’s first national title.

“Going into 2016 (when EWU reached the FCS semifinals), it was like, ‘Well, we’re going to try to outscore every single team we play. We’re not really banking on stopping them. If we do, it will be one or two times,’ ” senior center Spencer Blackburn said.

“This season, our defense will put it to anybody we play, and our offense is going to run.”

Here are five reasons EWU could return to Frisco, Texas, home of the FCS national title game.

1. These Eagles shut teams down

Defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s physical, senior-heavy group is nothing like the last few postseason units that found themselves in a few track meets.

The Eagles have shifted their identity to a staunch defensive team that hates yielding points, surrendering a Big Sky-best 16.8 per game against conference foes.

Weber State (9-2), UC Davis (9-2) and Montana State (8-4) – teams in the second-round FCS playoff field – combined to average just 17 points against the Eagles.

In a conference littered with big-play receivers and running backs, EWU allowed just one 100-yard-plus receiver (Jeff Cotton of Idaho) and two 100-yard-plus rushers (the nation’s leading rusher, Joe Protheroe of Cal Poly, and Troy Andersen of Montana State).

Hulking nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year, has been the key cog for a EWU defense that’s given up an average of just 303 yards the last four games.

2. Offensive balance

EWU ranks second in the country in total offense (554 ypg), yards paved by an offensive line that saw each of its starters earn all-conference distinction.

The Eagles (3,015 rushing yards) are on the cusp of breaking the program’s single-season rushing record set in 1950 (3,130), and are doing it with a four-pronged running attack that’s given defensive coordinators nightmares.

Not only have dynamic running backs Sam McPherson, Antoine Custer and Tamarick Pierce have worn teams down, but budding dual threat quarterback Eric Barriere has also emerged as one of the FCS level’s top playmakers.

Barriere, who replaced injured All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud halfway through the season, has thrown for 1,503 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 453 yards and six scores.

He’s thrown to a bevvy of experienced targets, including electric senior Nsimba Webster, who recently became the latest EWU receiver to eclipse 1,000 yards.

EWU is averaging 274 yards on the ground and 279 through the air. Now that’s balance.

3. Special teams

Football’s third phase has been a boon for the Eagles, who have one of the country’s most consistent kickers and punters in Roldan Alcobendas.

Alcobendas, who was injured against Portland State but practiced this week and is listed as a starter on this week’s depth chart, has connected on each of his 13 field-goal attempts this season and drilled all 54 of his extra points.

His punts averaged just less than 46 yards an attempt, with 16 of his 37 inside the 20-yard line.

The strong leg of kickoff man Andre Slyter has led to 38 touchbacks, the third-best mark in the FCS.

Despite a high-scoring offense that gives its opposition plenty of kickoff-return opportunities, EWU ranks 29th in the country in kickoff-return defense (18.4 yards per return).

4. Best’s way works

When second-year head coach Aaron Best took over for Beau Baldwin, many wondered if the Eagles would maintain their long-respected video game-like offense that often slung it around the field.

It’s still racking up gaudy numbers, but in the image of the gritty former lineman Best.

Best, the Co-Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year, made it a point to improve the program’s ground game, which he has in spades.

Young and crafty offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder likes to also get the ball in space to receivers and running backs, works the tights ends, and has been known to pull out some trickery.

If the Eagles find themselves on the road in the FCS semifinals, a run game and defense often travels well, especially in inclement weather.

Best has blazed his brand of success into the program and the buy-in is palpable.

5. Depth and experience

Twenty-seven seniors on this roster experienced the heartbreak of semifinal loss to Youngstown State in the 2016 FCS semifinals, a game the Eagles were a play away from winning.

They experienced a playoff snub last season and learned the value of reaching the postseason.

The sizable senior class is a big reason EWU, which has experienced a grip of season-ending injuries this season, has exhibited its competitive depth.

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