Last season, Gage Gubrud toiled on Eastern Washington’s depth chart, the third quarterback behind a prolific upper classman and a highly touted redshirt freshman. This season, Gubrud burst onto the scene and looked like the next great EWU quarterback who would take his turn shredding Big Sky Conference defenses in Beau Baldwin’s lethal offensive attack.
Gubrud earned FCS National Player of the Week honors thanks to a record-setting day in his first career start. The sophomore from McMinnville, Oregon threw for 474 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 74 yards, including a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown run to boost EWU to a 45-42 win over Washington State of the Pac 12. Gubrud’s 548 yards of total offense set EWU’s school record. The following week, Gubrud threw for 450 yards and three touchdowns in Eastern’s 50-44 overtime loss to five-time defending national champion North Dakota State.
So resounding was Gubsrud’s debut, it’s easy to forget he threw just 13 passes last season. It’s also worth remembering that no starting spot at Eastern Washington, not even the quarterback spot, is guaranteed to any one player no matter how gaudy the statistics. Despite throwing for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first three career starts, Gubsrud did not lead EWU to its most recent win. Instead, Riley Hennessey came off the bench to lead Eastern to its 34-30 win over Northern Iowa as the Eagles finished the nation’s most difficult non-conference schedule 2-1.
“You are always at your best when you are competing with someone and once you feel comfortable in a spot, you fall off in practice,” Gubrud said following the Washington State win. “We always have great practices because we have to. We are constantly competing for the starting spot and we all know that.”
In 2015, EWU found itself in a precarious situation when two-time Big Sky Offensive MVP Vernon Adams transferred to Oregon in the off-season before his senior year. As the calendar turned to November, it appeared EWU had found Adams’ replacement just as it always seems the Eagles reload at quarterback. Jordan West threw 28 touchdowns in Eastern’s first eight games, leading the FCS in the category as EWU won five straight league games to bounce back from an 0-2 start.
In Eastern Washington’s 61-42 loss to Oregon and its 38-35 loss at No. 14 Northern Iowa, West split time with Hennessey, a redshirt freshman and the 2013 Washington 4A Player of the Year. Hennessey threw a pair of touchdowns against Oregon and completed 13-of-18 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown before suffering a sprained ankle against UNI, missing the next six weeks.
West exploded for a career day in a 55-50 win over No. 11 Montana State, completing 21-of-24 passes for 410 yards and six touchdowns to spark EWU’s five-game winning streak. Hennessey returned and split time with West in Eastern’s 52-30 loss at Northern Arizona, a defeat that sparked a three-game losing streak as EWU missed the playoffs for the second time in the last six seasons.
The following week at Montana, Baldwin, EWU’s head coach since 2008, started Hennessey. When Hennessey suffered an injury from a bone crushing hit by Griz safety Yamen Sanders, Baldwin turned to West, who threw two interceptions before giving way to Gubrud for his first and only action of 2015. Hennessey was the only quarterback to play in EWU’s 34-31 loss to Portland State to finish 6-5.
The quarterback rotation is nothing new at EWU. Even when Adams was showing flashes of the player who would throw a Big Sky-record 55 touchdowns as a sophomore and an all-time conference-best 110 scoring strikes in just three seasons, he split time with Kyle Padron in 2012 as a redshirt freshman. Adams finished that season with 20 touchdown passes, including six in the FCS semifinals as EWU came storming back from a 35-0 halftime deficit against Sam Houston State before falling 45-42.
“Growing up, I always thought there had to be one quarterback, it has to be this guy,” said EWU three-time All-America receiver Cooper Kupp, the Big Sky’s all-time leader in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. “I don’t know how Beau does it. My redshirt year with Kyle Padron, Vernon Adams, we made it to the semifinals and almost came back to beat Sam Houston and went to the championship. He’s been able to develop quarterbacks in a way where a lot of times, the separation between them isn’t very big.”
Baldwin’s formula is tried and true. The Eagles led the country in passing yards last season, marking the eighth time in the last nine seasons Eastern has ranked among the top five in the FCS in passing yardage per game.
“I thought Jordan did some great things. But I thought at one point, we hit a little bit of a wall,” Baldwin said in an interview in July. “I thought Vernon hit the same type of wall in 2012 when he was playing as a redshirt freshman. I felt like Reilly came into fall camp and he had put himself in a situation where we needed to see him in game action. He got the injury against Northern Iowa which slowed him down and Jordan continued to win football games. He was winning them and winning them and playing at a high level in terms of numbers. But I felt like midway through the season, we hit a wall and we felt like it was the best thing for the team in the last two games for Reilly to be the starter.
“Our guys are not concerned with it. I don’t have to say anything to the locker room. Any packages or even if we rotated series, it really doesn’t matter. We have faith in all three of them.”
Baldwin is dead set at cultivating competition at every position on the field, including quarterback. While he acknowledges that having a defined starter can promote offensive rhythm, he expects all the quarterbacks on his roster to prepare like a starter each week so they can be ready at any time.
“All three of these guys think they should be the starter, which is what I want,” Baldwin said. “I tell them that straight up. I tell them I will be upset with them if they all three don’t feel like they can give us the best chance to win. That’s the chip you do need to win football games.”
Hennessey, West and Gubrud battled all through spring ball and fall camp to master Baldwin’s offense, an attack with new nuances with the addition of passing game coordinator Troy Taylor. Taylor’s concepts emphasize spreading the field and challenging defenses to cover inside and outside the hashes, leaving running lanes open for the quarterback, who serves as the primary ball carrier in the scheme. Because of Gubsrud’s ability to run, he ultimately won the spot.
“We’ve always been an attacking offense that wants to use the whole field,” Taylor said. “We will throw it as many times as we need to but we’ve been able to run it too. The quarterback has always been a dual-threat guy for us. We want to attack the field and keep it balanced as far as spreading the ball around.”
Despite Gubrud’s explosive start, the competition rages on. Gubrud threw an interception in overtime against NDSU to set up Lance Dunn’s game-winning touchdown run. The pick was his third on the day. In last week’s rematch with Northern Iowa in Cheney, Gubrud threw two more interceptions in the first two and a half quarters against UNI as EWU fell behind 24-7. With 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, Gubrud was 13-of-26 for 114 yards. When he took a 13-yard sack with EWU trailing 24-14, Baldwin elected to go with Hennessey down the stretch.
The 6-foot-3 Camas, Washington native completed 21-of-29 passes for 226 yards over the final 24:07 of action. He threw three touchdowns, including the game-winning score on a fake field goal with 43 seconds left to lift EWU to a 34-30 win over the No. 10 Panthers.
“Riley has a great feel for the game,” Taylor said. “He’s a good-sized kid at 6-foot-3 and he has great anticipation, smart, elusive in terms of his ability to avoid sacks. And driven. That’s the one thing that’s a common component: drive and focus. Gage is athletic and has the ability to run and throw. He’s good at both of them. He’s focused, determined, competitive, good accuracy. Jordan can stand in there and spin it. I like them all.”
Despite appearing in just seven career games, Hennessey has thrown for 999 yards and seven touchdowns. West, a fifth-year senior, filled in for Adams when the slithery gunslinger suffered an ankle injury against Idaho State in 2014, throwing for 1,072 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception while leading EWU to a 4-0 record in Adams’ absence. Last season, West threw for 3,002 yards and 30 touchdowns in nine starts. Yet he finds himself in the position Gubsrud sat in last season. So goes the life of a quarterback at Eastern Washington: prepare like the starter and wait for your turn to operate one of college football’s most explosive offenses.
“We have three guys who love being at Eastern,” Baldwin said. “They all want the ball in their hands but they all know only one can. They will keep competing, keep fighting for it and they all understand this is a long season.”
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