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Blanchette: Samson Ebukam helps change tone of game for Eagles

EWU celebrates recovering a fumble during the first half of a FCS quarterfinal college football game at Roos Field on Saturday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
EWU celebrates recovering a fumble during the first half of a FCS quarterfinal college football game at Roos Field on Saturday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

What a gift is the game-changing player.

The special talent who demands attention and specific game-planning, both by opponents hoping to lessen his impact and his own team to exploit it.

The player who fills all the columns when the statistics are compiled, the math not just reflecting the visual evidence but amplifying it.

The playmaker whose multiple skills go beyond the traditional role of his position, and are felt all over the field.

Eastern Washington has that kind of football player. His name is Samson Ebukam.

Oh, you were presuming Cooper Kupp? OK, maybe him, too.

But on Saturday afternoon, when the overnight snowfall turned the red turf of Roos Field into the Pinkferno, the defining character of an historically uncharacteristic Eastern performance was the Eagles’ Nigerian-born defensive end who traveled half a world to get here and nearly that much sideline to sideline and goal line to goal line in the 38-0 FCS quarterfinal rout of Richmond.

“Ridiculous,” marveled EWU coach Beau Baldwin. “Silly.”

Well, that’s a start.

It was a strange week altogether for the Eagles, beginning as it did with their head coach interviewing for another job at the University of Nevada. By Tuesday, the predictable fretting hereabouts had him the favorite. By Wednesday, Nevada had settled on someone else, and by Friday, Baldwin had himself an extension and presumably a raise from EWU, or at least some further commitments from the administration.

One bullet dodged, the Eagles went to extremes to make sure their next attacker didn’t have any ammo.

Because after all that drama and hand-wringing, there was still this game thing to do.

Not that it resembled one for long.

The Spiders had earned their way to Cheney by knocking off North Dakota, which shared the Big Sky championship with the Eagles. That circumstance was seen by some as a fluke of the schedule – the Eagles and Hawks never met – but it should be pointed out that UND was 5-0 against the rest of the Sky’s first division. Richmond, meanwhile, had endured 18 season-ending injuries, and yanked a redshirt off sophomore quarterback Kevin Johnson just to keep on keeping on.

But they couldn’t handle the cold, the snow or the Eagles. As one example, the Spiders lost more fumbles in the first half (four) than they gained yards rushing (three).

Other telling statistics on request.

By game’s end, the Eagles had pitched their first shutout on the pink – er, red – and in the playoffs, no less.

Ebukam had watched on TV Friday night as James Madison dismantled potent Sam Houston State team and saw that “as a statement game.

“So I wanted us to make a statement, too,” he said. “If you can shut down Sam Houston, who’s undefeated, why can’t we do that to another team and make that our statement?”

As it turned out, Ebukam’s talking didn’t end there.

In a dominant ensemble performance by the Eastern D, Samson was delightful.

On one Richmond three-and-out, he had tackles for no gain and a 2-yard loss, and 80 seconds later Eastern had a 14-0 lead. On the game’s next play, he sacked Johnson and swatted the ball from his grasp, though the Eagles’ offense didn’t do anything with it.

“The defense put us in some great situations,” Kupp acknowledged. “We have to be critical of ourselves in terms of getting points out of that.”

But the parlay of the day came early in the third quarter, when Ebukam sacked Johnson again and, two plays later, dropped back in pass coverage for an interception.

You can understand why Johnson didn’t see him back there. He was used to Ebukam being in his face.

“I still got made fun of for not taking it to the crib,” Ebukam said. “But I’ll take what I can get.”

By game’s end, Ebukam led or co-led the Eagles in tackles (eight), sacks (two), tackles for loss (four), forced fumbles, fumbles recovered and interceptions.

Kupp is due a virtual hagiography in EWU’s athletic library; Ebukam gets a few paragraphs. But Baldwin sees the two in the same light.

“Samson’s got all the stuff,” Baldwin said. “He and Cooper Kupp are very similar that way. They’re both extremely talented and skilled, but they’ve maximized who they are. They’ve maximized their talents. They study and understand opponents. They’ve maximized themselves in the weight room.

“They have an ability to make play – to turn it on. Some guys have that little extra something. Both of them have that.”

And this: opportunity. One game – Saturday at Roos against Youngstown State – stands between the Eagles at a shot at a second FCS championship.

“We’ve put in the work,” Ebukam, “but it’s not done yet.”

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