Eastern Washington was one of the more interesting teams in the FCS entering 2018. The Eagles were 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference last year but were left out of the playoffs. Instead of easing back into a Top 10 team, EWU was looked at as a national title contender by many right away in the offseason.
And understandably so. The Eagles had about 16 returning starters and were ranked No. 4 in our preseason poll.
So far, this team is living up to the hype with a 5-1 overall record and a 4-0 mark against FCS opponents. The team is stacked with talent and experience (27 seniors). But it’s how the Eagles are winning games that makes them a legit national title contender.
Sure, the four FCS opponents EWU has beaten aren’t of the highest quality with a combined record of 8-14. At the same time, the Eagles have won by a combined score of 190-77. In those wins, EWU has found the balance head coach Aaron Best is looking for.
It was a struggle last season for Best, in his first season at the helm, to toe the line of playing how he wants to play and making the most of the talent on his roster. It’s no secret in past years that the Eagles were electric in the passing game, but had an average rushing attack and a defense that couldn’t get stops.
That style of play came back to haunt EWU several times while hosting semifinal games in the frigid cold. The Eagles lost in the round of four in 2012, 2013 and 2016 by scores of 45-42, 35-31 and 40-38.
Best set out to change that with a bigger emphasis on defense and a more balanced attack on offense. So far this year, he’s gotten exactly that.
|Stats (Per Game)||2017||2018 (6 games)|
Again, the strength of EWU’s schedule is in the second half of the season. At the same time, Northern Arizona (31-26) was ranked No. 18 and fully healthy at the time of the game and Montana State (34-17) is a playoff contender.
Plus, All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud did not play in last week’s game against Southern Utah (55-17) and is out indefinitely with a foot injury. But sophomore Eric Barriere stepped in and threw for 233 yards and a touchdown while leading the team with 98 yards rushing and two scores.
That’s a sign of a team stacked with talent, is when your “franchise” quarterback goes down and you still roll.
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The biggest takeaway from EWU’s start is its style of play. The recipe to win a national championship is to be a physical offense and a tough defense. 48-45 wins in the regular season do not equal wins deep in the playoffs.
The Eagles have found their run game with Sam McPherson breaking out for 110.2 yards per game. Not to mention Antoine Custer Jr., last year’s top rusher, is back from injury and has ran for 237 yards and four touchdowns in the last three games. This team is also showing better physicality on the defensive front, which is only going to boost the play of the linebackers and defensive backs.
EWU has always had the talent to win another national title after the 2010 championship team. But now the Eagles also have a national championship-winning recipe to accompany that talent.