If Eastern Washington’s football fans were burdened this year by high expectations, it seldom weighed on the players.
After the season ended Saturday, senior captain Dylan Zylstra said the biggest disappointment wouldn’t be the end of the season, but instead “the great times I’ve had with this group of brothers.”
For most of the 20 seniors, Saturday’s 59-46 playoff loss to Illinois State was the final chapter in a five-year saga that included the best half-decade in modern Eastern history: a 53-16 record, four Big Sky titles and a national title in 2010.
That the Eagles again fell short of the brass ring didn’t mean nearly as much Saturday as the welfare of the Rodgers family, including offensive lineman Jake and his father John, who suffered a heart attack during the game. Eyes were still moist in the lockerroom long after the game ended.
Zylstra allowed that a few months from now, he might dwell on the season, a roller-coaster 11-3 affair that included the first game of the season, a near-win at Washington, the month-long absence of quarterback Vernon Adams, two wins over Montana … and another Big Sky title.
“You know, that used to be the benchmark here,” said center Jase Butorac, like Zylstra a senior captain.
Not anymore. Not after the Eagles fell one game short of Frisco the last two years. Not after a preseason No. 2 ranking built on the most explosive offense in the Football Championship Subdivision.
They almost made it.
The Eagles were still ranked fourth in the nation when the postseason began, but were simply outmatched in Saturday’s quarterfinal by an Illinois State team that was more physical, more balanced and less prone to mistakes.
“In the playoffs, it’s all about matchups, and this wasn’t a very good matchup for us,” said Zylstra in a nod to the Redbirds’ beef up front.
In contrast, the Eagles lacked that same hefty on its D-line, a problem all year along with inexperience at cornerback, speed at linebacker. For all of those reasons, the defense struggled for much of the year, but appeared to gain momentum after a pair of convincing wins over Montana.
Meanwhile, the offense lighted up the scoreboard, albeit less brightly while Adams was sidelined for a month with a broken foot. The Eagles fell to sixth in the rankings after a 28-27 loss at Northern Arizona, then moved up two spots to fourth to set up the fateful meeting with fifth-seeded Illinois State.
Along the way, the Eagles ended the season with a streak of scoring in 48 straight quarters dating back to Aug. 23. The Eagles broke school and Big Sky records for scoring, finishing the season with 618 points to break the previous record of 592 points they scored last season in 15 games.
Eastern also scored 84 touchdowns to break school and Big Sky single-season records of 83 set last season by EWU. Eastern’s 1,079 total plays in 2014 broke the EWU record of 1,036 set last year and the Big Sky record of 1,077 set by Montana in 2009.
The season ended as it has for three straight years – in the playoffs; the Eagles reached the postseason for the eighth time in the last 11 seasons.
And when it was over, some of the seniors lingered a bit. Running back Quincy Forte still wore his uniform as he carried dinner back to his locker, looked around and soaked it all in.
“It’s been a great run, and we’ve all loved being here.”
“We’ll always be a family,” Forte said.
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