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Cooper Kupp plays through pain as EWU marches on in FCS playoffs

Eastern Washington Eagles wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) hauls in a pass against Central Arkansas during the first half of an FCS football game on Saturday, Dec 3, 2016, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington Eagles wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) hauls in a pass against Central Arkansas during the first half of an FCS football game on Saturday, Dec 3, 2016, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

At this time last year, Cooper Kupp was sitting at home with an empty feeling.

Eastern Washington failed to make the playoffs for the first time in his college career and Kupp watched the results pour in from FCS playoff matchups, wishing himself and the Eagles were out there playing too.

Fourth- to sixth-round draft projections be darned, Kupp was going to help elevate the Eagles to that stage in his senior season, in his final chance to do so.

And a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder – which Kupp suffered against Portland State two weeks ago – wasn’t going to keep him out in EWU’s second-round playoff game.

“This is where you imagine yourself being and having this opportunity to play in this type of game,” Kupp said.

Fighting through pain, Kupp came through in a big way for the Eagles. Faced with a 14-point deficit, the Eagles’ star receiver corralled two touchdown passes from quarterback Gage Gubrud toward the end of the half – the first a 19-yard reception with 3:48 remaining and the second one going for 6 yards with 14 seconds left.

He finished the half with 10 catches for 95 yards and two TDs and helped EWU establish a 21-14 lead.

Having Kupp out there during the Eagles’ first-half comeback was meaningful for the rest of his teammates.

“Our entire team looks up to him. At the end of the day, he’s our leader,” senior safety Zach Bruce said. “When you’re playing a lot of football like Coop is, there’s going to be little injuries here and there. But when you see that leader taking the action to play through that stuff, that means a lot to everybody on the team.”

Noticeably favoring his right shoulder between plays, it wasn’t easy for Kupp to shoulder through the half. But not starting the game wasn’t an option for the senior wideout.

“It wasn’t fun. I was in some pain,” Kupp said of the first half. “It’s just one of those things you have to play through. It’s the playoffs, you have a great opportunity, these games don’t come often.”

Kupp entered the game with 6,061 career receiving yards a chance to become the all-division collegiate record holder, set by Glenville State’s (NAIA) Chris George from 1991-1994. Surpassing George would be another item for Kupp’s already prestigious assortment of records.

Kupp sat out the second half – aside from a few plays in the third quarter – leaving him short of the 6,177 yards needed to pass George. It was the least of Kupp’s worries.

“I felt like me being out there wasn’t helping the team as much as having some of our other guys out there,” Kupp said. “You always want to contribute, but I didn’t want to put myself in the position where I was hurting the team.

“I wanted to give it the best shot I could and unfortunately I couldn’t finish the game out.”

While Kupp sat our injured, his younger brother, Ketner, filled in for the Miquiyah Zamora, who was out with a hamstring injury, at middle linebacker and finished with a team-leading 11 tackles.

The younger Kupp’s maturation has been a big development for the Eagles’ defensive depth. And with the starting starting strong-side linebacker leaving the game in the first half with a leg injury, he’ll be counted on as the Eagles’ traverse through the FCS playoffs.

“He had to come in early in the season against North Dakota State due to some injuries and I think ever since then he’s grown as a football player, both physically and mentally,” Bruce said. “He’s really attacking that role and earning a lot more playing time.”

The Eagles take on Richmond in the FCS quarterfinals next week at Roos Field. Both Kupp brothers figure to be in the equation for EWU moving forward

And for Cooper, being in this position during his last hurrah as an Eagle means playing through pain is just a minor obstacle.

“These kinds of moments are the reason to come back,” Kupp said.