From backup to record-breaker, the 2018 season has been a wild ride for Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere, who’ll lead the Eagles into the FCS National Championship game Saturday against North Dakota State.
“I really couldn’t envision this,” Barriere said. “It’s in the moment, really. We are going through it week by week and now that it’s here, it’s crazy to really think about really playing for a national championship like every kid in the nation wants to play for.”
Although the players and coaches will downplay it now, Eastern’s season changed on September 29, when the Eagles’ two-time Walter Payton Award finalist quarterback Gage Gubrud hurt his foot late in a 34-17 win over Montana State. The injury, which Gubrud described as “like really bad turf toe”, required surgery that ultimately ended his career.
The next man up was Barriere, who had thrown all of 26 passes in his redshirt freshman year in 2017.
“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t worried,” running back Sam McPherson said. “You lose an All-American quarterback and that’s tough on any locker room. You don’t know exactly what is going to happen. We knew EB was our guy but we didn’t know how he was going to perform.”
Three months later, Barriere has answered all of those questions.
The week after Gubrud’s injury, he ran for a quarterback school-record 85-yard touchdown in a 55-17 win over Southern Utah.
After Gubrud was declared out for the season, Barriere led the Eagles to four straight wins to close the regular season, with the offense scoring at least 38 points in every game.
In the FCS semifinals against Maine three weeks ago, he threw an FCS postseason record seven touchdown passes in a 50-19 win. With each game Barriere’s decision making in Eastern’s run-pass option-based offense has improved. EWU has long held a reputation as an offensive juggernaut. Because of Barriere’s dual-threat ability, the Eagles are displaying as much balance as they ever have, rushing for 266 yards per game and throwing for 278 on the way to averaging 45 points per contest.
Now, Barrire might be EWU’s best chance to take down one of the greatest dynasties of all time.
“He can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his legs,” NDSU coach Chris Klieman said. “The thing that concerns us the most is when things break down … when you have a quarterback that can ab-lib and make plays on his own, there are no calls for that. … He’s a terrific football player.”
Coming out of La Habra High School in California three years ago, Barriere was the jewel of Eastern Washington’s Class of 2016.
Per 247 Sports, he’s the fourth-best recruit the Eagles have brought in since 2000, and the first three-star quarterback ever recruited by the program.
Athletic enough to be classified as, well, an athlete coming out of high school, he threw for 104 touchdowns against just 16 interceptions in three seasons at La Habra and came with a winning pedigree to boot, not losing a league game in 15 tries.
According to 247, he also had interest from Baylor, Mississippi State, Ohio State and Oregon. He held offers from at least Hawaii, Montana State and Montana.
“I just thought Eastern was a great fit for me, great atmosphere, great players, team bonded and that was the major factor over all the other schools that recruited me,” Barriere said.
The year of 2016 was a good year for quarterbacks at Eastern Washington. In addition to Barriere arriving on campus, Gubrud had his breakout year, breaking the FCS single-season record for passing yards in a single season (5,160) and throwing 48 touchdowns as Eastern advanced to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs. As a sophomore, Gubrud was a finalist for the Payton Award for the first time.
Barriere redshirted that season, and was named the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. He was already Gubrud’s backup as a redshirt freshman in 2017, starting his first game and leading the Eagles to a win against North Dakota, before the injury this year gave him a chance to start.
‘We knew he had a chance,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “His first year as a redshirt year, that was Gage’s first year on the scene. He didn’t get a lot of TLC because he wasn’t the guy, he was redshirting. But you knew he cared more than most even though he was redshirting. He got his jump start in his career a little sooner than he anticipated this year, and we’re better off for it.”
Barriere’s sheer physical talent is overwhelming, and it’s what will give Eastern Washington a chance against NDSU.
“Honestly, the most fun thing for me is to just watch him play,” Gubrud said. “There’s some things physically that nobody else in the nation can do. I literally mean no one else in the FCS. It’s really fun to go out there and make the throws he can make and make guys miss.”
Barriere is equally capable of throwing 60-yard deep bombs or ripping off 60-yard touchdown runs — he had one of each in a 74-23 win over Portland State with a 66-yard run and a 68-yard touchdown pass to Nsimba Webster.
“He’s a unique talent,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said. “Barriere is a lot like (MSU starter in 2016 and 2017) Chris Murray: you think everything is taken care of and then all of a sudden, he ducks out the back door and goes for 80 on you. North Dakota State is going to have to have a good plan to minimize that.”
Behind the scenes, everyone around Eastern Washington’s program has said that they might be more impressed by the mental side of Barriere’s game.
Media members tell stories about how he verbally diagrammed plays like a coach on a whiteboard to answer a question in the press conference after the Maine game.
“I’ve seen him improve mentally week by week,” Gubrud said. “From where he started out last year to where he is now, it’s crazy how far he’s come in the mental aspect of the game.”
And now the team that was expecting to rely on a decorated senior quarterback belongs fully to a sophomore who’s barely started double-digit games in his career.
Experience doesn’t matter if you have results — and one more stellar performance could give Barriere the biggest one of them all.
“We are trying to win it all,” Barriere said. “You can’t go out there and be fearful just because it’s North Dakota State. When we go out and play … we are going to bring our A game and hopefully, we come out victorious.”