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Tuesday, November 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports

Blanchette: Eastern deserves credit for showing talent, moxie

PULLMAN – The biggest football victory in Eastern Washington football history … well, don’t kid yourselves. It was six years ago when there was a national championship at stake.

But this one? Pretty damned good.

And, yes, that’s a compliment to Washington State, too. And about the only one the Cougars figure to get this week.

This is the cruel, funky reality of college football. The Eagles can ride the glow and momentum of their 45-42 stunner over Wazzu for the next week, but they’ll have to tiptoe around those craters in the landscape left from all the mortars scathing the Cougs for being such bums to lose to a team from the Big Sky Conference.

And two years in a row now, to boot.

What can you say? Given last fall’s history, maybe the Cougs have the rest of their opponents right where they want them.

They certainly couldn’t locate the Eagles – not Cooper Kupp, who routinely has every football team chasing his tail, and not Gage Gubrud, who up until kickoff the Cougs couldn’t have identified without a program, and maybe even not then.

“The best player on the field was Cooper Kupp,” admitted WSU coach Mike Leach, “and the second best was their quarterback who’s got a name I can’t pronounce.”

See?

That goes, too, for most the Eagles’ lesser heroes – Shaq Hill and Antoine Custer and Samson Ebukam and Mitch Fettig, who collectively must have given WSU that who-are-those-guys feeling. At least the Cougs could pick out Jordan Dascalo, a punter they once didn’t feel strongly enough about keeping in the program, leaving him free to kick a 48-yard field goal for Eastern right before halftime – which, wouldn’t you know, turned out to be the difference on the scoreboard.

“No hard feelings,” insisted Dascalo, happy as he was to be able to say it from the winner’s perch.

Far too much gets made of these FCS-over-FBS upsets from the Armageddon-for-the-giant side, and probably not enough from the underdog’s achievement – though it might help if the underdogs regarded themselves as such.

“We never think of ourselves that way,” Gubrud said. “Playing a Pac-12 opponent? Who cares? Yeah, they have more scholarships, but so what? Our guys are just as good as theirs.”

Echoed Leach, “Eastern Washington’s first-level guys are as good as our first-level guys.”

And in a couple of special cases Saturday, better.

The Kupp factor was no great surprise, of course. Sometime during the evening, he was going to become the all-time touchdown receptions leader in FCS, and that it happened to come on the pass early in the third quarter that put the Eagles ahead for good was a tasty lick of frosting. The play covered 26 yards and, in fact, there may have been 26 yards between him in the closest Cougar.

But part of the reason he was so open was the time Gubrud had bought and the defensive chaos he created while flushing out to the left – a luxury the Eagles enjoyed for so many years in the Vernon Adams era, and will now enjoy again.

Indeed, for Kupp’s splendid day – 12 catches, 206 yards, three TDs, a completed pass and two first-down rushes – Gubrud was the difference maker, and not solely because he broke Adams’ single-game EWU total offense record with 551 yards.

As a sophomore-cum-virtual-freshman, in his first college start.

“I remember playing the last few games against Pac-12 teams,” Kupp said, “and that first drive, there’s always a few wide eyes. There was none of that.”

No wide eyes? There were almost no incompletions – just six in 40 throws.

But poise wouldn’t have put up 48 points without his multidimensional skills.

“Any time you get into situations with a mobile quarterback,” Baldwin said, “the defense has to defend another gap – another guy who’s a threat to run and create. If he can play almost like a point guard – distribute it, pull it or give it – that because so tough on a defense.”

The Cougars like to pride themselves on their many dimensions, too, but the most prominent Saturday was self-destruction. Lots of penalties, some drops and missed throws, and a weird meltdown of the offensive line in the third quarter when the game got away from them.

Not the end of the world for the Cougs (”I still think they’ll win eight or nine games,” Baldwin said), but it’ll make for an uncomfortable week of practice – and for being a punch line. Maybe they need to get out of the business of scheduling Big Sky teams.

And it’s not the top of the mountain for the Eagles. Next week: FCS’ national champions, North Dakota State.

“The first win is sometimes the hardest, though – and when you look at our schedule, I’m sure a lot of people said, ‘Yeah, your first win is going to be the hardest,’ ” Baldwin laughed.

Hard, sure. Even huge.

But mostly, just pretty damned good.

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