BOZEMAN — The last time Gage Gubrud played at Bobcat Stadium, he threw for more yards than any Eastern Washington quarterback ever had.
That’s no small feat considering the recent lineage of nationally elite signal callers that have played at EWU. Erik Meyer in 2005 and Bo Levi Mitchell in 2011 won the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in the FCS. Matt Nichols was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2009 while Vernon Adams earned the award in consecutive years in 2013 and 2014.
Against a Montana State secondary intent on making EWU’s offense earn every yard, Gubrud threw for more yards than any of them.
On a sunny October Saturday in 2016, Gubrud competed 37 of 51 passes for 520 yards and four touchdowns against an MSU defense that max dropped often in an effort to limit the explosive abilities of wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill.
After watching Kupp shred the Minnesota Vikings with nine catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns on Thursday Night Football for the Los Angeles Rams, his 13 catches for 154 yards and a score against MSU that afternoon doesn’t seem so bad.
Last season, Gubrud broke the record by throwing for 549 yards to help the Eagles rally for a 48-41 win over Montana in Missoula.
On Saturday, Gubrud returns to Bobcat Stadium for his last time. Kupp is starting for the Rams, Bourne is starting for the San Francisco 49ers and Hill spent short stints in the Canadian Football League and the NFL.
But the No. 5 Eagles still have Gubrud, a likely three-time Walter Payton Award finalist who shared the Big Sky’s offensive MVP with Kupp in 2016 as a sophomore. The former walk-on from McMinnville, Oregon is one of 28 seniors for the Eagles and is the triggerman for an offense averaging nearly 46 points and 570 yards per game during EWU’s 3-1 start.
“If you asked me to describe Gage in one word, it would be awesome,” Montana State third-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “I think he’s as good as there is in the country.”
Since that loss to the Eagles two years ago, Choate and his staff have been determined to give Montana State’s defense a makeover in both style and personnel.
The renewed health of Montana State’s defensive line combined with the addition of Washington transfer Bryce Sterk has given the pass rush a jolt. An overhaul in talent in the secondary has made Montana State much more athletic and, in turn, diverse on the back end.
Gubrud said he noticed the upgrade in talent last year in the matchup in Cheney, a 31-19 EWU victory. On Saturday, Montana State hopes its recruiting efforts pay off in what is one of the most pivotal games in the Big Sky Conference this weekend.
“The talent level is obvious,” EWU second-year head coach Aaron Best said. “Guys fly around. They are absolutely going to challenge you physically at all three levels, whether it be level one in the run game or drop back pass game, level two with matchups on linebackers and running backs or level three, those guys do not lack confidence at the corner and safety spots. They tackle well. They are very football intelligent. And they play really hard.”
Although Eastern Washington currently leads the league in rushing yards per game (291), the number is inflated because of a 441-yard effort in a 70-17 blowout of Cal Poly last week. Senior Sam McPherson and junior Antoine Custer spearhead a tailback group with four dangerous options. But Nsimba Webster, Andrew Boston and Eastern’s wide receiver corps will surely get their opportunities on Saturday as well.
“It’s always fun to go play a Montana school,” Gubrud said. “I would definitely view them as one of my favorite games to play. I don’t know if I view them as a rival or not like we would Montana but we don’t even play Montana anymore so we are ready for this one. Montana State is a great, tough program who we love playing.
“There is a respect factor where you don’t like them but you respect them and I think they feel the same way about us.”
The 2016 season was the one and only season Troy Taylor helped as the offensive coordinator under former head coach Beau Baldwin, the primary play caller the previous eight seasons leading up to his final at EWU. Taylor, who earned a national reputation at Folsom (California) High brought different offensive ideas to Baldwin’s spread single-back offense that helped so many quarterbacks become so prolific.
The details of the run-pass option was the primary scheme Taylor bestowed upon the Eagles before moving on to become the offensive coordinator at Utah before last season. When Best, EWU’s longtime offensive line coach, took over for Baldwin as the head coach at his alma mater, he retained much of what he learned in one season learning alongside Taylor.
“To be able to get mileage out of the RPO game, you have to be able to control the line of scrimmage to make those safeties play at or near the box,” Best said.
Best emphasized that he wanted Eastern Washington to maintain its reputation as one of the most innovative and explosive passing attacks in college football while fortifying its run game as well.
“We feel like we have a quartet of running backs more than capable to handle the load we give them on Saturdays,” Best said. “I don’t know if that’s ever been the case around here. When you have really good players or really good people in a business, you lean on those really good people to get the most out of your operation. We don’t want to throw the ball around the yard if some of our best players are sitting behind the quarterback.”
That philosophy is coming into form four games into 2018. Last year, inexperience and injuries hampered EWU’s offensive line. This year, a group anchored by second-team All-Big Sky fifth-year senior center Spencer Blackburn has blocked up the run game to help the Eagles rush for 328 yards in a 58-13 win over Division II Central Washington, 248 yards in a 31-26 non-conference win over Big Sky foe Northern Arizona and the 441 yards last week.
The offensive front also features third-year starters at both tackle spots in junior left tackle Tristen Taylor, an honorable mention All-Big Sky pick each of the last two seasons, and junior right tackle Chris Schlichting, who is working on a streak of 29 straight starts. The unit also features fifth-year senior left guard Jack Hunter.
“I think it was the line and the tight ends, they all did an amazing job blocking for us last week,” said Custer, a second-team All-Big Sky selection last season who rushed for 133 yards and scored touchdowns of 62 and 43 yards against Cal Poly. “All week, they were focused on blocking to see if we could balance the offense out a little more, which we have been doing. All the credit goes to them for doing their jobs.”
The 441 yards last week came on just 30 carries. Eastern Washington’s 14.7 yards per carry shattered the former Big Sky record of 11.1 set by Portland State against Idaho State in 2013.
“That sort of effort has been building up since the season started,” Gubrud said. “Every game, we have rushed the ball pretty well. Even against Washington State, when we had our most success, we were running the ball well. It’s just been a confidence that has built up after awhile now and it exploded on the day we played Cal Poly.”
Even with the potent run game — McPherson is third in the league by rushing for 125.5 yards per game and the team is averaging 8.3 yards per rush — the quarterback for the Eagles will still likely be a key factor in Saturday’s final result.
Gubrud is completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 1,105 yards (276.2 yards per game) and his 13 touchdown passes lead the league. He has already surpassed 10,000 yards of total offense in his career and his 87 career touchdown passes are already among the best in the league.
Best played at Eastern Washington in the late 1990s and began coaching there in 2000 as a graduate assistant on Paul Wulff’s staff. He’s had a front row seat to watch players like Josh Blankenship and the aforementioned quintet of award-winners. Now he’s getting to coach the next EWU great gunslinger in his senior season. Best is just trying to soak up the experience every chance he gets, the next coming on Saturday afternoon in Bozeman.
“We are fortunate to have Gage and his playmaking ability on the field but his leadership, he’s grown immensely off the field,” Best said. “You only get X amount of months with Gage so as much as we can take from him, we will and still appreciate him every day.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.