PULLMAN – Mike Leach saw a bright future for the Eastern Washington football team, even after the Cougars beat the Eagles in blowout fashion earlier this season.
Better yet, the Washington State coach may have even predicted their future.
“They’re a good football team, they might win the national championship game this year,” Leach proclaimed in his postgame press conference following a 59-24 win over EWU at Martin Stadium. “Which wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”
Leach’s prediction, made Sept. 15, might have some legs. EWU drubbed Maine 50-19 Saturday afternoon at Roos Field in the FCS semifinal game to book a trip to its second national championship game.
Eight days after Leach and the Cougars take on Iowa State in the San Antonio-based Alamo Bowl, Aaron Best and the Eagles will play for FCS royalty about five hours north in Frisco, Texas, against North Dakota State, the team that’s won six of the past seven championships.
The Eagles had already wrapped up celebrations on the red turf in Cheney when the Cougars, 70 miles south, concluded their fourth bowl practice in Pullman.
Considering the prophetic statement he made about EWU three months earlier – three months to the day, in fact – Leach wasn’t shocked to learn the Eagles were one of the last two standing.
“It didn’t surprise me at all,” Leach said.
And how will the title game play out?
“I think they’ll win it,” the WSU coach declared. “I thought that from the beginning. In our game, I saw the same stuff. I thought they’d have a great chance to win it. After we played them, I thought they would for sure. Of course, it’s a tough path and they’ve done a great job over there and I hope they win the national championship.”
The Eagles stunned the Cougars at Martin Stadium in 2016 and played a spirited game in Pullman this fall, despite the lopsided score. EWU trailed by as many as 25 points in the first half, but Gage Gubrud tossed three touchdowns in the second and third quarter to make it an 11-point game headed into the fourth.
EWU could have chopped the deficit down to four points, but Gubrud was intercepted by WSU linebacker Jahad Woods near the end of the third quarter – a momentum-swinging play that allowed the Cougars to close out the Eagles with 24 points in the final period.
“It was early in the season, but they’re a great team,” Woods said Saturday. “They had a well-balanced offense, and I think their defense was pretty good, too.”
Gubrud, EWU’s senior All-American quarterback, played in only two more games before suffering a career-ending foot injury against Montana State. The Eagles have since been buoyed by backup QB Eric Barriere, who tied a program record with seven touchdown passes Saturday vs. Maine.
“The second-stringer, I heard he’s pretty good,” Woods said. “They’re a good football team. I’m not surprised at all they’re advancing to the championship.”
Leach continued to heap praise on EWU, which lost just one more after the Eagles and Cougars clashed in Pullman, scoring 126 points in playoff wins over Nicholls State, UC Davis and Maine. Leach believes the Eagles have captured a recruiting edge on many of their Big Sky foes, which has allowed them to sustain year-after-year success in a competitive conference.
“One, they’re in a great conference,” Leach said. “The other thing is, they’ve been very steady over there. They have their schemes, their packages and they do what they do. And also I think they’ve done a good job capitalizing on some other programs in the conference that are down and outrecruited a lot of those places, as well as kept their situation stoked at a high level, while others have struggled and had their problems.
“I think, in the meantime, they’ve elevated their level of players as a result.”
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