Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best still shakes his head when recalling the play.
Three months before EWU captured the program’s first national title in 2010, the Eagles edged NCAA Division II Central Washington 35-32 at CenturyLink Field, a game the Eagles trailed late in the second quarter.
One play – one of the most athletic Best said he’s seen – led to the deficit.
CWU linebacker Adam Bighill – now a four-time Canadian Football League all-star – sniffed out a Bo Levi Mitchell pass across the middle, jumped, corralled the throw, bolted 66 yards the other way and scored.
“My jaw is probably still on the floor of Seahawks stadium,” Best said “It was one of those deals where I was like, ‘Wow, that was impressive.’ ”
That’s the sort of athleticism Best has grown to expect from the team from Ellensburg, which visits EWU on Saturday at 1:05 p.m. at Roos Field.
The programs – ranked in the top 10 of their respective divisions – haven’t met since the 2010 slugfest. The Eagles are 5-1 in the series since 1999, including a 21-14 upset loss in Cheney in 2006.
“In the 2006 situation where we went 3-8, we weren’t a very good team,” Best said. “The record indicated that. We played on this field, it was grass then, and we didn’t do a very good job, and got beat by a better team.
“In that three hours on Saturday, it’s about who’s the better team is. Not who has more scholarships, or better shoes, or the better gate.”
Like EWU, which has given FBS programs fits in the past, including upsets at Washington State (2016) and Oregon State (2013), the Wildcats have a history of taking bigger schools down to the wire.
Behind former EWU quarterback Reilly Hennessey last year, CWU edged North Alabama, now a FCS program, 17-10, on its way its way to an undefeated regular season. In 2016, CWU led Portland State 26-21 in the fourth quarter before giving up 22 straight points.
In 2008, when the Montana advanced to the FCS title game, CWU fell to the Grizzlies 38-35 in Missoula. Two years later, it lost to the eventual champion Eagles by the same deficit.
“A lot of those guys over there do a great job coaching,” Best said. “Central plays as hard as anyone. Their effort level is very high and always has been.”
EWU staff has CWU ties
Four EWU assistant coaches made career stops in Ellensburg.
Wide receivers coach Jay Dumas worked under current CWU head coach Ian Shoemaker from 2014-16. Linebackers coach Josh Fetter coached defense at CWU for four years and defensive line coach Brian Strandley spent nine years on CWU’s staff.
EWU cornerbacks coach Cherokee Valeria played receiver at CWU when the Wildcats won a national title in 1995. He also spent two years coaching his alma mater.
Ex-EWU head coach Beau Baldwin, who accepted the job as California’s offensive coordinator in 2016, also played and coached at CWU.
“We’ve got a lot of intel (for Saturday’s game) from those guys who were at Central,” Best said.
Shoemaker’s brother, Javid Shoemaker, played safety at EWU from 2001-05.
Gurley to redshirt
One of the top freshman defensive backs in the country in 2017, EWU safety Anfernee Gurley will redshirt this season because of a knee injury.
He tallied 37 tackles, three passes broken up and two forced fumbled as a true freshman reserve safety, and started one game at nickel back. He was named to the HERO Sports Freshman All-American Team.
Freshmen crack the two-deep
When EWU released its week one depth chart, it mostly mirrored its preseason depth chart released in July.
Redshirt freshman receiver Andrew Boston, who was listed as a second-string receiver this summer behind senior Zach Eagle, is now a starter. Fellow redshirt freshman Mitchell Johnson (defensive end), Matt Shook (left guard), Marquess Hampton (wide receiver) and Caleb Davis (nose guard) have also cracked the two-deep, but aren’t starters.
The one true freshman on the two-deep roster is defensive back Tre Weed, who is listed as punt returner.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.