Three minutes into Saturday’s game, Antoine Custer Jr. was in need of some redemption.
Moments earlier, on Eastern Washington’s first possession, quarterback Gage Gubrud was sacked while scrambling. The ball popped loose, almost in front of Custer, who merely stood and watched as Montana State lineman Marcus Ferriter jumped on the loose ball at midfield.
“I thought it was a forward pass,” said Custer, who got an earful on the sideline from coaches and teammates.
Custer’s time in the doghouse didn’t last long, however. On the next series, he carried the ball six times for 34 yards and a touchdown. By game’s end, he had a career-high 147 yards on 27 carries to help Eastern outlast Montana State 31-19.
In the process, he and the Eastern offense defied the doubters.
They had a point: in three previous Big Sky Conference games, the Eagles had averaged just 93 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Montana State came into Saturday giving up just 122 rushing yards per game, second-lowest in the conference.
“You say, ‘How is Eastern going to run the ball?’ ” Eastern coach Aaron Best said after the game. “But you never know going into a game. They may allow us or force us to run the ball.”
Sure enough, the Bobcats were often in a nickel package, denying the deep ball to quarterback Gage Gubrud. That alone was a boon to the run game, which ended with a season-high 227 yards on 49 carries.
The passing game was efficient enough – Gubrud completed 25 of 31 pass attempts, but for only 224 yards and one touchdown. This day belonged to the backs.
Custer was the main weapon, but McPherson added six carries for 54 yards, including a 23-yarder that gave Eastern a 24-7 lead early in the second half.
Added Best: “When you play hard and block hard, you always have chance, and when you mix in some talent, that’s a special sauce.”
On Saturday, the key ingredient was Custer, a true sophomore from northern California who’s been a precocious part of the Eastern offense since his first game as an Eagle.
A year ago at Washington State, it was Custer who scored the first touchdown of the season in an upset of the Cougars. He also excelled at kickoff returns – twice earning Big Sky weekly awards as a kickoff returner – but the ground game was a work in progress.
The work paid off on Saturday – from the first drive to the last. Fittingly, it was Custer who scored from 3 yards out to give the Eagles a 31-19 lead with three minutes left.
“The offensive line was really getting after it, so I thought this might be a game where we run the ball a little,” Custer said. “We’ve been practicing all week on the run, and they were trusting me with the ball,” Custer said.
Added Best, “When you have a shooter who’s hot, you keep giving him the ball. We tweak things to give them a different look, with the same guys toting the ball.”
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