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Eastern Washington hopes physical approach pays off this season

Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer Jr. said he and his crew are prepared for physical play. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer Jr. said he and his crew are prepared for physical play. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

According to coach Aaron Best’s master plan, an emphasis on physicality will pay off for Eastern Washington come playoff time, in the bitter cold of December.

Perhaps Best underestimated his players.

On Monday afternoon, there was sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. with a spring in his step despite the 95-degree heat.

“I feel good, and I’m ready to run downhill,” Custer Jr. said as he walked onto the turf at Roos Field. “We’re ready to get after it in the run game.”

That’s what Best wants to hear ahead of Saturday’s opener at Texas Tech: confirmation that the players on both sides of the ball have embraced a more physical approach to the game.

It didn’t hurt that Best moved most fall practices to the afternoons – ostensibly to match the 3 p.m. Central Time kickoff in Lubbock, Texas, but also to toughen his players all the way to the postseason.

For the players, motivation came even before Best was named to succeed Beau Baldwin. Reflecting on the FCS semifinal loss to ball-hogging Youngstown State, defensive lineman Andre Lino said it “took a couple of days to look back and see what we were doing in that game.”

“The goal was to get bigger, get stronger, and that’s exactly what we did,” Lino said.

On the day he was promoted, Best promised that the offense would be more balanced. That too would toughen the defense. Never again would an Eagles opponent run 60 plays in the second half, as the Penguins did on Dec. 17.

“That’s not to say we’re going back to the drawing board and be run first. We’ll be pass-first,” Best said.

Last year, the Eagles threw the ball 620 times and ran on 442 plays, one of the most pass-heavy ratios in the nation.

“I hope we can make it closer to 50-50,” Custer said.

Those numbers are further skewed by the fact that quarterback Gage Gubrud led the Eagles in rushes (138) and yards (606). The running backs accounted for 258 carries – that’s just 20 per game – and 1,083 yards.

All signs point to more carries for the backs and fewer for Gubrud, whose health is paramount, considering he’s the only Eastern quarterback who’s played a snap at the college level.

If the Eagles’ two scrimmages are any indication, the backs will get at least 30 carries a game, which also should lessen the reliance on a developing receiving corps.

However, will that take the fun out of Eagles football, the free-wheeling offense that seemingly was a step ahead of every defense in the Big Sky Conference, and was the engine that carried Eastern to the playoffs?

Not if new offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder has anything to say about it.

Reeder said the Eagles’ offense will be “multiple, with timely shots, timely wrinkles and hard to predict.”

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