Beau Baldwin will be the first to tell you that every team is unique. Each has a different personality and in turn a different destiny.
But some teams feel special and Baldwin is no stranger to close-knit groups with a winning mentality. As Eastern Washington’s head football coach winds down his ninth season at the helm, he will lead his Eagles on another chase of the FCS national championship. Baldwin is the last coach not working at North Dakota State to bring home the title. The Eagles captured the crown in 2010 before the beginning of an unprecedented run of five straight championships for NDSU.
EWU is entering its fourth playoff berth during the Bison’s run. The Eagles tore through the Big Sky Conference, posting an 8-0 record in league and a 10-1 mark overall. The lone loss was a 50-44 defeat in overtime in the second game of the season at the Fargo Dome against NDSU.
Eastern Washington has hung Big Sky banners five times since 2010. Baldwin helped EWU to the national semifinals in 2012 and 2013 with a quarterfinal appearance in 2014. But last season, Eastern lost three straight games down the stretch to snap its playoff streak. The 6-5 season served as gasoline on EWU’s collective fire during the off-season leading up to this year and sparked a run that feels like it is building toward a storybook ending.
All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp could have declared for the NFL Draft early after winning the Walter Payton Award as a junior. But he elected to return for his senior year. Speedy wide receiver Shaq Hill applied and was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing last season with a torn ligament in his knee. The much-maligned defense adjusted under second-year defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding and playmaking veterans like defensive end Samson Ebukam, middle linebacker Miquayah Zimora and safety Zach Bruce emerged as top-tier all-league players as senior.
The sum result has been a team that looked almost unbeatable during Big Sky Conference play, patiently feeling out opponents for the first half of games before dropping the hammer and burying teams. EWU defeated teams by an average of 15.4 points per game despite trailing at halftime in eight of its 11 games.
“I have a ton of confidence in what we can do with this team and we’ve had that all the way back to 11 months ago in the off-season,” said Baldwin, who is 83-31 at EWU. “We’ve had a mindset that we could do something special. It takes the day-to-day details every day. If you go back to 2010 at this time, we were thinking the same way. We were thinking going into the playoffs we have a chance at this but we knew it would be tough every week.
“Like I told the guys yesterday, you don’t beat all 15 (playoff) teams every week. You have to find a way to beat one team. It’s one thing to say it, it’s even tougher to do it.”
The undefeated surge through the Big Sky coupled with a non-conference schedule that includes wins over Pac 12 power Washington State and Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley Conference helped EWU earn the No. 2 seed in the FCS playoffs. The Eagles hosts Central Arkansas, a 10-2 team from the Southland Conference who scored 24 second-half points to post a 31-24 win over Illinois State last week.
“We are one of 16 teams in the country who gets to go out and practice and that’s an exciting feeling,” Bruce said. “It’s also exciting that we have to earn it. No one knows if they are going to be able to play next week.”
Eastern’s roster features 13 seniors, many of them standouts. Kupp, Hill, Ebukam, Zamora and Bruce all garnered first-team All-Big Sky recognition this season. If not for the players he shares a position group with, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne might’ve been a first-team all-conference pick as well. Those players and a collection of other standouts, including Big Sky Co-Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Gage Gubrud — he shared the award with Kupp — are ready to lead the Eagles on a chase for the championship.
“You talk to the best, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, they all get nerves before the game,” said Bruce, a former walk-on who leads EWU with 95 tackles and three interceptions. “I think if you don’t get nervous, that means you don’t care. We will have some nerves but it’s more excitement than anything.
Last year’s Eagles rode a roller coaster. EWU was a popular preseason pick to win the national championship in 2015 before stud quarterback Vernon Adams, the two-time reigning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, transferred to Oregon for his final season. A combination of Jordan West, Riley Hennessey and, for a brief moment in Missoula in a blowout loss against Montana, Gage Gubrud attempted to pick up the pieces after Adams’ departure.
Eastern spurted to six straight wins after an 0-2 start. But EWU was barely scraping by. Eastern Washington beat Montana State by five, Sacramento State by eight, Cal Poly by one, Northern Colorado by two and Weber State by one. A 52-30 home loss to Northern Arizona preceded a 57-16 drubbing at Washington Grizzly Stadium. The Eagles lost 34-31 to Portland State at home to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
That fizzle was the catalyst for this season’s surge. Gubrud beat out West and Hennessey during the off-season and wasted no time affirming the decision was a good one. In his debut, the sophomore threw for 474 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 77 yards and another score to set an EWU single-game record for total offense in a game and his 30-yard touchdown run proved to be the game-winner in Eastern’s 45-42 win over Washington State.
Without Kupp in the fold for the second half against NDSU, Eastern still managed to earn itself a game-winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation. Jordan Dascalo missed the kick and Lance Dunn put EWU’s upset hopes to bed with a 25-yard run in OT to win it. Gubrud showed vulnerability in that game, throwing three interceptions despite throwing for 450 yards and four touchdowns as EWU became the firs team this decade to score more than 38 points on NDSU. The following outing against Northern Iowa, Gubrud again struggled. Baldwin, in typical fashion, did not hesitate, pulling Gubrud for Hennessey, a sophomore and former Washington 4A prep Player of the Year. Hennessey threw three touchdowns in the second half to rally EWU to a 34-31 win.
Gubrud reassumed the starting job the next week against Northern Arizona and Eastern has rolled ever since. Kupp caught 91 passes for 1,297 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing one and a half games. Hill caught 65 passes for 1,014 yards and 15 touchdowns, the best mark in the league and second in the country. Bourne caught 61 passes for 930 yards and six touchdown as Gubrud piled up 4,086 yards and 40 touchdowns through the air while also running for 463 yards and four touchdowns.
Gubrud, a former walk-on from McMinnville, Oregon, and Kupp are among the three finalists invited to Frisco for the 30th annual Walter Payton Award Ceremony. Sam Houston State quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe is the third finalist.
“Any time you put in all the work we have and then you see it pay off at the end of the season, it feels good,” Gubrud said during EWU bye week last week. “But we aren’t finish. The ultimate goal is to get to the national title game and win a national title.”
No. 14 Central Arkansas dropped a 35-29 decision to Samford at home in Week 2 before ripping off an eight-game winning streak and putting themselves in a position for a seed. A 59-23 loss at rival Sam Houston State, the top-ranked team in the polls and the No. 5 seed in playoff bracket, ensured UCA would play in the first round.
UCA quarterback Hayden Hildebrand threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns, both to UCA’s all-time leading receiver Desmond Smith. When Smith went down with an injury following his go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter, the Bears did not panic. Anthony Warrum scored a 55-yard touchdown to tie the game at 24 with six minutes left but with less than two minutes left, UCA capitalized on good field position thanks to stout defense and a short punt. Hildebrand hit Antwon Wells for a 39-yard gain and Wells punched in the game-winning touchdown from four yards out to complete a rally from a 24-7 deficit.
“It’s got to be a confidence builder to know we are capable of doing that against an outstanding opponent,” UCA third-year head coach Steve Campbell said on Tuesday. “We preach to our guys keep playing and sooner or later, something good is going to happen. Just keep playing, keep playing. The way it worked out, a lot of things really weren’t going our way early but we kept playing and playing and the dominoes started falling for us.”
Eastern Washington has the top passing offense in the country, averaging 407 yards per game. UCA is 13th in total defense, allowing 320 yards per game, including 72.8 per game on the ground, the second-best mark in the FCS. Central Arkansas allows opponents to convert just 30 percent of their third downs (10th in the FCS) thanks to a defense that has notched 14 interceptions and 31 sacks, both in the top 20 in the FCS.
“I think they have strength throughout each level but they go as their d-line goes,” Baldwin said. “Any team that is averaging giving up less than 75 yards a game on the ground, that’s gotta start with the guys up front.”
First-team All-Southland defensive back Tyler Williams leads the country with 23 pass breakups. He has four interceptions. Defensive backs Tremon Smith and George Odum also earned first-team All-Southland honors. The defense is active up front led by first-team all-league defensive lineman Jordan Tolliver. The Bears’ 103 tackles for loss are the second most in the country.
“They play with high motors, high energy and they have talent to go with it so they will always have the ability wreak havoc in your backfield because of the style of play,” Baldwin said.
The Eagles had a bye last week, practicing twice and lifting twice leading up to Thanksgiving. Bruce said he and many of his defensive teammates watched film on both Illinois State and Central Arkansas leading up to the weekend, then watched the game.
EWU can play as many as three consecutive games at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington before departing for the national championship game in Frisco, Texas on January 7. Before any reservations to the Lone Star State can be booked, EWU must first take care of business this weekend on a Saturday afternoon likely to be highlighted by snow and cold.
“I believe strongly we have the type of outfit that has a chance to make a deep run,” Baldwin said. “But that has to start with playing an incredibly good Central Arkansas team.”