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EWU offensive line overachieves

Eastern Washington QB Reilly Hennessey (12) fires down field against Northern Iowa, Sept, 17, 2016, in Cheney, Wash. Lineman Spencer Blackburn protects Hennessey. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington QB Reilly Hennessey (12) fires down field against Northern Iowa, Sept, 17, 2016, in Cheney, Wash. Lineman Spencer Blackburn protects Hennessey. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Please excuse Eastern Washington’s offensive linemen for patting themselves on the shoulder pads.

In a season full of pleasant surprises, they’re the biggest.

Questions posed by fans since last winter have been answered in exclamations points, with the most prolific passing offense in the Football Championship Subdivision and a running game that’s gaining steam with every game.

More important, the Eagles are 5-1 and ranked third in the nation going into Saturday’s Big Sky Conference game at Montana State.

Is that surprising?

“Yes it is – I expected to be 6-0,” said redshirt freshman Tristen Taylor, the starter at left tackle after the graduation of All-American Clay DeBord.

“But we are playing fairly well,” Taylor said before Tuesday’s practice at Roos Field, where the first-unit O-line includes three sophomores and two freshmen. The growing pains began last winter, and they weren’t just physical.

“They read stuff back in January and February,” coach Beau Baldwin said. “They’re hungry and they’re thinking, whatever our offense does, we don’t want to be the reason we don’t get over the hump.”

More humps lie ahead – including next week’s showdown with Montana – but so far, so good.

“Yeah, 5-1 speaks for itself, and every unit is part of that 5-1 start,” offensive line coach Aaron Best said, “They’ve done a solid job, but let’s not rest on solid.”

Eastern’s last two games have yielded the fifth- and 10th-best offensive numbers in school history. A 627-yard effort brought a 63-30 win over UC Davis on Oct. 1. A week later, the Eagles had 659 in a 49-31 win over Northern Colorado.

Eastern also had a 606-yard performance at Washington State which now ranks 19th.

The Eagles have done that behind sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud, who in turn stands behind a line that’s played its last two games with five starters were had a collective zero starts in 2015.

Yes, the biggest wild card in this year’s team is coming up aces – even without a full deck.

The only two players returning with starting experience were senior center Jerrod Jones and tackle Nick Ellison, but both have missed the last two games. As a result, the starters against Davis and UNC included sophomores Spencer Blackburn, MAtt Meyer and Jack Hunter, as well as freshmen Taylor and Chris Schlichting on the left side.

Asked whether he expected to start at center for the third-ranked team in the country, Blackburn said, “Definitely not – I had no idea this would happen.”

Injuries were overcome in the usual fashion: Redshirts were burned and players were moved – some from some other positions.

A month ago, Beau Byus was a tight end. Against Northern Iowa, the former Central Valley star caught the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Northern Iowa; now he’s backing up Taylor at left tackle.

So is that a bit of a letdown after a moment of glory? Best had a quick answer.

“Why is blocking for a living not a moment of glory?” Best said. “Our glorification is running the ball.”

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