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Stellar season for Eastern Washington football could lead to another

Sat., Dec. 24, 2016, 3:26 p.m.

Eastern Washington WR Cooper Kupp beats UC Davis DB Vincent White for a 71-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter on Oct. 1, 2016, in Cheney, Wash. His offensive production for the Eagles will be tough to replace next season. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington WR Cooper Kupp beats UC Davis DB Vincent White for a 71-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter on Oct. 1, 2016, in Cheney, Wash. His offensive production for the Eagles will be tough to replace next season. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s been almost a week since the tough loss to Youngstown State, so the cups should be half-full again for Eastern Washington football fans.

If it weren’t for an impossible catch at the end of that game, the Eagles would be preparing for the FCS title game. Instead, they can look back on a 12-2 season that legitimately stands as the second-best in school history.

That’s a six-game improvement over the year before, when the Eagles didn’t even make the postseason.

Looking for a defining moment? It happened a year ago, days after a season-ending Senior Day loss to Portland State that left the Eagles at 6-5.

First, All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp deferred on a chance to play in the NFL to stay another year. “Unfinished business,” Kupp said at the time. The rest of the team got the message, attacking the offseason with renewed vigor.

“That type of example is a big reason why we’re here,” Baldwin said last week.

“You could see it even before we played a game,” coach Beau Baldwin said. “You could see something special back in January – something different in the way they were going to push the standard. There was something different.”

Meanwhile, Baldwin found a new offensive coordinator in Troy Taylor and defensive front coordinator Eti Ena. Both moves paid off later.

However, questions lingered through the off-season, mostly among fans: Would a quarterback emerge? Could the offensive line – one of the youngest in school history – grow up? Could the defense get off the field?

And even if they could, would they survive the September gauntlet of Washington State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa?

The Eagles positively answered those questions and a few more en route to season that also included a win at Washington State, a near-miss at five-time FCS champ North Dakota State and a perfect run through the Big Sky Conference.

Statistics tell part of the story: the offense went from fourth in the Big Sky to first, averaging 529 yards; and the defense improved from 12th (out of 13 teams) to seventh.

Credit that to a strong pass rush, which led the league with 35 sacks and helped force 17 interceptions – up from seven the year before. Turnover margin went from minus-7 to plus-12.

However, if your glass is half-empty, the Eagle offense struggled in the end zone and was one of the league’s worst rushing teams at 4.1 yards a carry.

Lack of balance in bad weather – playoff weather – was a factor in the loss to Youngstown State, but the Eagles wouldn’t have made it that far without its high-flying offense.

Looking ahead, the Eagles lose 12 high-profile seniors, including All-Americans Cooper Kupp and Samson Ebukam, but the Eagles probably face fewer on-the-field questions than they did a year ago.

On offense, Eastern returns six starters – seven if you include running back, where true freshman Antoine Custer Jr. was getting more carries than anyone else by year’s end.

The picture is even brighter on defense. The line loses only Ebukam and Matt Sommer and the secondary is intact except for the graduation of Zach Bruce. However, linebacker Miquiyah Zamora will be hard to replace.

The bigger questions are off the field. The program dodged a bullet when Baldwin didn’t get the job at Nevada, and the school reacted by approving a pay raise (which is still being finalized).

The biggest long-term question is the future of Roos Field, which turns 50 next year and is showing its age.

Nothing tangible has emerged from the university administration apart from President Mary Cullinan’s statement that she is “in support of the university moving forward as it explores its options in regards to a stadium project.”



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