Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES
RECORD LAST SEASON: 7-4 OVERALL, 6-2 IN BIG SKY CONFERENCE PLAY
2018 NON-CONFERENCE RECORD: 2-1
BIG QUESTION: Can the Eagles reattain a nationally elite level under Best?
Eastern Washington went from new kid on the block to burgeoning Big Sky contender in about 10 years when the Eagles first joined the league in 1987. By 1997, Mike Kramer had EWU in the semifinals of the Division I-AA playoffs.
Head coach Paul Wulff and his right hand man Jody Sears — the duo remains together at Sac State, except Sears is the head coach and Wulff is the offensive coordinator — helped Eastern rise up to compete with Montana in its best years as the class of the Big Sky crop.
With the fall from the top of the league by the Grizzlies, the Eagles assumed the perch as the most nationally competitive team from the conference. Behind the innovative leadership of Beau Baldwin, the Eagles raced to the 2010 national championship. That title serves as the last won by the league. To begin the decade, EWU won or shared the Big Sky championship in five of seven seasons.
In nine seasons at the helm before leaving leading up to last season to become Cal’s offensive coordinator, Baldwin’s best team might’ve come in 2016. Those Eagles rode the peerlessly prolific Cooper Kupp and an offense that also included future NFL starter and Kendrick Bourne and future CFL contributor Shaq Hill to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs. But that team fell short of the 2010 squad, losing on a last-second completion on a ridiculous catch that ended the talented group’s run.
Losing those three receivers along with Samson Ebukam, who is now a starting outside linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams, might seem impossible. Doing it under a first-time head coach in Aaron Best did not make the transition any easier.
Last year and this year, the Eagles still sport a talented roster flush with offensive playmakers, headlined by Gage Gubrud, a two-time All-American who threw for 48 touchdowns in 2016 and 26 last season. That’s a starting point for a roster that features 27 other seniors.
But it remains to be seen if Best, a player on that 1997 EWU semifinal qualifier and the school’s offensive line coach under Wulff and Baldwin, can help guid the Eagles back to the ranks of the nationally elite. Last season’s non-conference put Eastern behind the eight ball. Seven wins in nine games followed an 0-2 start that included a 56-10 loss at Texas Tech and a 40-13 loss at No. 2 North Dakota State.
This season, EWU beat Central Washington and Northern Arizona before last week’s 59-24 loss at Washington State. The Eagles will have as many different ways to hurt defenses — slashing tailback Sam McPherson is averaging 7.7 yards per carry, Nsimba Webster was an All-Big Sky selection last season who already has 19 catches and four touchdowns, and Andrew Boston has received internal reviews for his potential to be the next great Eastern receiver — behind an offensive line that morphed from young to experienced last season.
Despite EWU’s strong finish in 2017, the Eagles missed the playoffs. ‘Leave No Doubt’, Gubrud said, is the team’s motto this season. If Eastern can return to the postseason, it will be the next and perhaps most important step to putting Baldwin’s legacy in the past rather than letting it loom as the dominant force of the present.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: GAGE GUBRUD, senior quarterback
Despite losing the most prolific receiver in the history of college football to the Rams and another threat in Bourne who caught a touchdown two weeks ago for the San Francisco 49ers, Gubrud still tied for the Big Sky lead in touchdown passes last season. Gubrud is the definition of a trigger man, the engine to a powerful and diverse offense that pushes the tempo, puts a priority on getting the ball out quickly and has an elite ability to get the ball to speedy playmakers in space.
The former walk-on from McMinnville, Oregon enters his final conference opener against Cal Poly with 9,227 passing yards and 10,188 total yards in his career. More than any of the great EWU quarterbacks that came before him — Erik Meyer, Matt Nichols, Bo Levi Mitchell and Vernon Adams all earned All-American honors and Big Sky MVPs under Baldwin’s tutelage — Gubrud is the igniting force for the Eastern offense. If the Eagles are to return to the playoffs, it will be on his shoulders.
He enters Saturday’s conference opener with 890 yards passing and 12 touchdowns. He threw for 337 yards and five scores in a season-opening 58-13 win over Division II Central Washington. He threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-26 non-conference win at Northern Arizona. He threw for 231 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 59-24 loss at Wazzu.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: MITCH FETTIG, senior safety
Although a narrative exists in the league that EWU is all offense and no D, the Eagles have produced a collection of individually elite players over the years, including Ebukam most recently. This year’s Eagles lack that magnetic headliner but the charismatic and cerebral Fettig could emerge as a star.
He enters his fifth year in the program with 33 starts and 34 games played, more than any other Eagle defender. The two-time All-Big Sky selection earned third-team honors last season after a 92-tackle campaign. He had 96 tackles as a sophomore. He enters his senior year with 6.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions in his career.
Montana State head coach Jeff Choate on Gage Gubrud: “The quarterback position is such a pivotal position. I think it is going to be interesting to keep an eye on that throughout the league,” Choate said. “I think that’s why you see Eastern at the top of the coaches’ and media polls is just the level of production Gage has had throughout his career, the style of offense they play and his ability.”