Ten seasons have passed since the dawn of Eastern Washington’s pass-happy Beau Baldwin era.
Since 2008, the Eagles have had just two seasons – run-minded quarterback Vernon Adams’ gaudy 2013 and 2014 campaigns – in which they ran the ball more than throwing it downfield.
Now, in the second year of Aaron Best’s regime, EWU, which has one of the country’s top passers in Gage Gubrud, has leaned more toward the run – and without its most decorated runner.
The balanced Eagles (2-1), who rank third in the FCS in total yards, have 110 carries and 94 pass attempts, totaling an impressive 723 yards on the ground and 910 through the air.
Junior scatback Antoine Custer, a second-team All-Big Sky Conference selection in 2017 and a preseason first-team pick this summer, hasn’t played a down.
In August, Best said Custer was recovering from a minor, undisclosed injury, and expected him healthy before the Eagles’ season opener, but Custer didn’t suit up. The De La Salle (California) product was in full gear at Washington State last week but didn’t play.
On Tuesday, Custer appeared shifty and explosive in practice drills, and was getting reps with the first- and second-team offense.
But will he be ready for the Eagles’ Big Sky Conference opener against Cal Poly (1-2) on Saturday at 1:05 p.m. at Roos Field?
“It looks (that way), I’m optimistic. But I’ve been optimistic the last few weeks,” Best said. “But we’re in no hurry to make a rush to judgment. We’ve been effective in the run game.”
Hard-running senior Sam McPherson has stepped up big as the Eagles’ primary running back, ranking eighth in the country in rushing yards (411). Tamarick Pierce gained 67 of his 115 yards this season in six carries at Washington State.
Pierce challenged the Cougars’ defense during the Eagles’ short-lived rally, helping EWU get in scoring range on three straight drives, scoring on two.
“The passing game opened up during that stretch because we were running the ball so well,” said Gubrud, who leads the FCS in touchdown passes (12).
Gubrud, a dual-threat QB who rushed for more than 500 yards in 2016, has gained 119 yards on 19 carries.
Next receiver up?
EWU wide receiver Nsimba Webster, who was sidelined all of the second half Saturday at WSU with an ankle injury, already has an impressive 19 catches for 434 yards and four touchdowns.
Webster didn’t practice Tuesday. Best, who said Webster’s injury wasn’t serious, said he’s hopeful Webster will play against Cal Poly.
The next two most consistent receivers are redshirt freshman Andrew Boston (seven catches, 108 yards, touchdown) and senior Zach Eagle (seven catches, 110 yards, TD), who’ve each had at least one catch in all three games.
Boston hauled in his first career touchdown pass late in the second quarter Saturday.
“Nsimba, we’re going to rely on him a lot,” said Boston, who also has two carries for 14 yards, “Our receivers, we’re trying to be great as a unit. We’re not worried that Nsimba is going to carry us through a whole season. We expect other guys to have big games.”
Johnson leads sack parade
EWU redshirt freshman defensive end Mitchell Johnson ranks 24th in the country in sacks (three) and is tied for first in the Big Sky Conference.
Johnson had two sacks against Washington State last week, the only sacks the Cougars’ offensive line has yielded this season.
The West Linn, Oregon, product also leads the Eagles in tackles for a loss (five).
Ex-EWU corner coaches for Cal Poly
Allen Brown was one of Eastern Washington’s most trusty defensive backs, twice earning All-Big Sky Conference distinction before graduating in 2014.
He’ll be using those Cheney experiences to help his group of Cal Poly cornerbacks shut down the Eagles’ receiving corps.
Brown, a fourth-year cornerbacks coach at Cal Poly and a Tacoma native, said he is looking forward to returning to his alma mater and facing EWU’s explosive offense.
He gave his assessment of EWU’s receivers.
“(Nsimba Webster has) the total package and is probably a top two or top three guy in our league. (Andrew) Boston has a huge upside and (Terance) Grady is an experienced, get-the-job-done kind of guy,” Brown said. “(Zach) Eagle is a kid they can trust, coach’s son great route runner and (Dre) Dorton can take the top off at any time.”
In 2014 Brown stayed on at EWU as a conditioning intern who assisted with EWU’s secondary.
“I was there with four of their current DBs: (Mitch) Fettig, (D’Londo) Tucker, (Josh) Lewis, and Cole (Karstetter),” Brown said. “All great kids and damn good athletes.
“I wish the best for them in every game but this one.”
Ena faces his old team, Protheroe
Before EWU defensive ends coach Eti Ena joined EWU’s staff in 2016, he was coaching up Cal Poly’s defensive line.
Now, Ena’s ends have the chore of stopping the Mustangs’ run-heavy, triple-option offense, spearheaded by star running back Joe Protheroe, the reigning Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week.
He had 228 yards and three touchdowns on 43 carries in 44-14 rout of Brown.
Protheroe, a Walter Payton Award nominee before a knee injury, rushed for an average of 120 yards against the Eagles in 2015 and 2016, both Eagles wins. The teams didn’t play each other last season.
EWU senior defensive end Jim Townsend, who redshirted last season, played against the Mustangs in the two previous meetings.
“Coach Ena really emphasizes being disciplined (against the triple-option) with our eyes and techniques,” Townsend said. “Don’t get fooled by anything and don’t be chasing anything we don’t need to be chasing and know what our responsibility is.”
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