CHENEY, Washington — The last time Eastern Washington hosted an FCS semifinal game at Roos Field, one of the most talented teams in the history of the Big Sky Conference lost in the bitter cold in bitter fashion.
As Derek Deoul’s shanked punt fluttered out of bounds and landed in the hands of Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best’s hands, the memory of Kevin Rader’s last-second catch to end EWU’s 2016 march faded, at least for a moment.
Best caught the ball and passionately pounded the pigskin five times. The second-year head coach and Eastern Washington alum could feel a landmark victory closing in. On a beautiful, sunny afternoon, Eastern Washington held a 43-19 lead with 10 minutes left in the fifth semifinal game in the FCS playoffs played on the blood-red turf this decade alone.
That short punt gave the Eagles the ball 42 yards from the field with the suns at their backs. Five plays later, Eric Barriere continued his virtuoso display operating Eastern’s run-pass option offense. He ripped a throw to senior tight end Jayce Gilder, who rumbled in for his second touchdown of the day, Barriere’s record-setting seventh touchdown pass of the afternoon.
A team that lost All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud in its second Big Sky game this fall shined brighter than ever before on Saturday afternoon. The third-seeded Eagles forced two first quarter turnovers to blitz to a 14-0 lead over seventh-seeded Maine, Barriere put on a clinic from start to finish and Eastern Washington left no doubt in a 50-19 victory to move into the FCS national championship game for the second time in school history.
“We were in tears after that 2016 game and now we are crying tears of joy,” EWU All-Big Sky senior running back Sam McPherson said after pacing Eastern to 216 rushing yards against a defense that ranked as the best in the FCS this season against the run. “This is just an unbelievable feeling. To do it for all the fans here, all the alumni, it’s just unbelievable.”
During the current decade, Eastern Washington has been the standard bearer for the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles have claimed five league titles and advanced to the FCS playoffs six times in the last eight seasons. Saturday marked Eastern’s fifth semifinal game, all played in Cheney.
But each Final Four since Eastern claimed the Big Sky’s last national championship in 2010 has ended in disappointment.
EWU lost 45-42 to Sam Houston State in the 2012 semifinals in Cheney. The Eagles lost 35-31 to Towson in the semis of the 2013 playoffs on their home field. And the most heartbreaking of EWU’s FCS Final Four defeats came in the 2016 playoffs.
A team that featured current NFL starters wide receivers Cooper Kupp (Los Angeles Rams) and Kendrick Bourne (San Francisco 49ers) and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam (Rams) along with Gubrud fell 40-38 to Youngstown State thanks to Rader’s unbelievable catch around Kupp’s younger brother, linebacker Ketner Kupp.
On Saturday, the revamped Eagles dominated the impressively physical Bears, a team that whipped second-seed Weber State in a 23-18 win in Ogden in last week’s quarterfinals. EWU senior cornerback Josh Lewis nearly took his first interception to the house, setting up Eastern’s first touchdown pass. By the end of a nearly flawless first half for the hosts, Barriere had four passing scores and the Eagles held a 28-0 lead.
Maine scored all 19 of its points in the third quarter but the Eagles never took their foot off the gas. Following Gilder’s touchdown, EWU forced its fourth turnover of the afternoon, putting an exclamation point on the thorough, vindicating win.
“It was a total team effort,” Best said after moving to 19-6 in his career. “I can’t say enough about scoring 50 and allowing only 19 in a semifinal against a very good Maine Black Bear team. That says something. Our team played very, very energized today and were very passionate. People wanted to know why we couldn’t win in a semifinal on our home field since 2010, and here we are – we did it today.”
As a good portion of the 7,529 fans in attendance poured onto the field, songs like “If You’re Going to Play in Texas,” by Alabama and “Deep in the Heart of Texas” by Gene Autry blared over the speakers.
Ketner Kupp, now an all-league senior middle linebacker and the heart of the ferocious Eastern defense, stood at midfield taking pictures with fans while donning a straw cowboy hat. Wearing sweats, a stocking cap and a walking boot on his surgically repaired right foot, Gubrud shared a collection of embraces with a good number of his 26 senior classmates.
With their 12th win of the season, Eastern Washington moves into the FCS championship game for the first time since 2010. The Eagles will play North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas on January 5. The top-ranked Bison are gunning for their seventh national title in the last eight seasons. NDSU posted a 44-21 win over No. 5 South Dakota State on Friday night to move to 31-2 all-time in the FCS playoffs.
Eastern Washington beat Delaware 20-19 in the 2010 title game, helping the Big Sky claim its sixth and most recent national championship.
“What a blessing to have this opportunity and have the guys around us that we do,” Ketner Kupp said after a seven-tackle performance.
“It’s just awesome, a lot of hard work from a lot of guys coming together and paying off. We have one more step left and we are excited to attack the opportunity.
“(North Dakota State), seven of the last eight years, they’ve been there and they’ve set that bar high. We are excited to go and take them on and capture the opportunity.”
Maine quarterback Chris Ferguson and the Black Bears’ offense moved the ball from the outset of Saturday’s action but a string of mistakes doomed the Colonial Athletic Association champions.
The first offensive drive of the game resulted in a missed 46-yard field goal try by Maine kicker Kenny Doak. Maine’s second possession ended in Lewis’ near pick-six that set up Barriere’s one-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Boston, the first scoring strike on a day where Barriere broke Vernon Adams’ school record for touchdown passes in a single game.
“We were happy to get a turnover like that and give the ball to the offense at the 1-yard line,” said Best after watching his team move to 50-0 when winning the turnover margin since 2010. “It’s not just a huge momentum change, but it’s a huge momentum developer. Whenever you are a plus-three in turnover margin, you are going to win – so says the numbers since 2010.”
With EWU senior defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year, suspended for a violation of team rules, sophomore defensive tackle Keith Moore rose to the occasion in his first start of the season. His strip sack of Ferguson and subsequent recovery to end Maine’s third possession set up a 58-yard touchdown drive sparked by receptions of 19 and 24 yards by senior Nsimba Webster and capped by Barriere’s 3-yard touchdown toss to Gilder, a native of Corvallis, Montana who made a highlight reel leaping catch in the corner of the end-zone.
Eastern’s second sack, this one shared by Matt Johnson and Jonah Jordan, forced a Maine punt, Barriere orchestrated a 75-yard touchdown drive capped by his first of four touchdown passes to Webster and the Eagles held a 21-0 lead with a minute to play in the first quarter.
“It’s unreal, the maturity Eric has shown, not overlooking anything and taking it on like a pro,” Kupp said. “It’s been awesome to watch him develop and lead this team.”
From there, Barriere’s ability to make the correct decision on RPO plays helped Eastern move the ball at will. The Eagles finished the game with 568 yards of total offense and 27 first downs. A week after completing 21-of-25 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns in EWU’s 34-29 win over UC Davis, Barriere completed 21-of-30 passes for a career-high 352 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Being confident,” McPherson said when asked about Barriere’s progression since taking over for Gubrud nine games again. “The kid has always had the talent. Now he has confidence and that’s scary right there. That dude is an absolute freak and now he’s confident. There’s no limit for that guy.”
In three playoff starts this winter, Barriere is 59-of-84 (70.3 percent) for 773 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I can’t believe he’s the backup here, that’s impressive,” Maine third-year head coach Joe Harasymiak said after his team finished 10-3 and advanced to the semifinals for the first time in school history. “We knew that coming in, we play quarterbacks like him in our league that extend plays with their feet. We just didn’t do a great job in certain situations. The bottom line is that they won every single matchup. It wasn’t our day.”
Barriere also rushed for 53 yards on seven carries and EWU did not allow a sack to a Maine defense that entered the game with 47 sacks, second in the FCS. McPherson rushed for a team-high 64 yards as the Eagles averaged six yards per carry against a defense that had not allowed more than 153 yards in a single game this season. The Black Bears’ “Black Hole” defense entered the game giving up 70 rushing yards per game and stuffed Weber State to the tune of -1 yard rushing in Ogden last week.
“Our running backs did a good job, our o-line did a good job of blocking and I really think they were trying to key on me, not wanting me to get outside,” Barriere said. “I thought that opened up a lot for our running backs.”
The second half started in bizarre fashion as EWU All-Big Sky senior center Spencer Blackburn had an errant snap that Barriere eventually kicked out of the back of the end-zone, resulting in a safety for Maine’s first points.
The visitors cut the lead to 28-5 thanks to a 31-yard Doak field goal on the ensuing drive after EWU’s safety punt. But Barriere kept his foot on the gas, floating a beautiful 36-yard completion to Webster, who’s monster day included nine catches for 188 yards and four touchdowns. Three plays later, Barriere hit Webster for his second score from nine yards out, giving Eastern a 35-5 advantage.
Maine earned two more stops in the third quarter, turning one into a 47-yard touchdown by sophomore tight end Andre Miller to narrow the gap to 35-12. After 15 straight throws, Jo Fitzpatrick’s two-yard touchdown shaved the deficit to 35-19 for the Bears.
A team that has traveled more than 8,500 miles to play two of the Big Sky’s three co-champions in the last 14 days would make no more progress. Barriere hit Webster for a 58-yard touchdown with a minute to play in the third quarter. The Eagles could taste it when Best caught the botched punt with 10 minutes left in the game. And Barriere’s final touchdown pass to Gilder proved to be the final dagger as the Eagles punched their ticket to Texas.
“The only thing that could top this is if we won the national title,” McPherson said. “This is just hard to believe. One of the greatest moments of my life.”