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Eastern Washington University Football
Sports >  EWU football

John Blanchette: Eastern Washington proves its ground game is plenty potent in throttling of Cal Poly

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 22, 2018

Hard to believe all the depth Eastern Washington has running the football.

Eight guys packed it for 19 yards or more on a single play Saturday – and this against a team that’s supposed to be the runningest thing this side of a toddler’s nose on a 20-degree afternoon.

OK, so one of them was a linebacker and another a defensive end who did the scoop-and-score thing with two fumbles. But a yard is yard, and 20 or 30 – or 60 – at a crack make the game all that much easier, however they come.

Here’s something else that makes the game easier: Antoine Custer Jr.

His first touch of the season came in the final 90 seconds of the first quarter of the Big Sky Conference opener at Roos Field and ended 9 yards later. On touch No. 2, he stormed through a gap cleared by the left side of EWU’s offensive line and motored 62 yards untouched to the end zone, one of those statement moments that was about as subtle as those Acme products which continually crease Wile E. Coyote’s noggin.

Little Big Man is back.

And speaking of statements: Eastern 70, Cal Poly 17 – Eastern’s biggest point total in 52 years.

“That’s a big number,” marveled EWU center Spencer Blackburn. “But I think the bigger number is the rushing yards.”

That would be 441 – and there’s more fun with math beyond that, but all in good time. For now, just be advised that four Eastern running backs topped 50 yards – and averaged more than 10 yards a carry, as did quarterback Gage Gubrud.

“All four of those guys,” EWU coach Aaron Best said, “make the guys up in front of them better.”

Wait, what?

In his second season as Eastern’s head coach after a 16-year apprenticeship tutoring the offensive line – and four years as the Eagles’ center before that – Best’s intention of building a more balanced offensive attack hasn’t always been a universal hit with fans partial to fling-it-around fun. And his pedigree would certainly suggest a soft spot for the fellows grading the road, perhaps at the expense of the skilled staff.

But, well, not.

“It’s not the offensive line that makes the tailback better,” he insisted. “It’s the tailback who makes the offensive line better. It took me about five years of my career to figure that out. It doesn’t matter what’s up front, it’s what’s behind.”

Hey, this kind of talk will get a guy’s O-line alumni club card revoked.

“I thought it was the other way around early on when we had really good offensive lines,” he said, “and then we had some years when everybody wanted to know why we can’t run the ball. Then you add a Taiwan Jones and we become really good.

“It’s like the Dallas Cowboys – you lose Ezekiel Elliott and still have the same guys up front, but you’re not as potent. Look, there has to be some chemistry, for sure. But there’s got to be a guy behind you that makes things happen.”

The Eagles had been getting along just fine this season with Sam McPherson carrying the ball as Custer rehabbed a pulled hamstring and worked through a “minor” blood clot. But the dimensions of Eastern’s run game became more evident Saturday with Custer’s return.

The 62-yard touchdown was just the start. In the third quarter, with the Mustangs still trying to overcome the two crushing fumble rumbles Eastern had turned into scores, the junior from Berkeley, California, broke Poly’s will with a 43-yard burst around the corner, getting a terrific block downfield from receiver Andrew Boston.

But the previous snap might have been even more telling – a third-and-1 in which Custer cracked into a stacked box for that single necessary yard, and no more.

“That was a hard yard,” he acknowledged. “Third-and-1s are always big, no matter what the score. You don’t get it and that’s just another opportunity for the other team.”

He would finish with 133 yards – just the fourth-best total of his career. But they came on a mere eight carries. In all, EWU averaged 14.6 yards per rush – a Big Sky record.

Now, some of this is a sign of how far the Mustangs have fallen – co-Big Sky champs their first year in the league in 2012, 1-10 a year ago. A few weeks ago, No. 1 North Dakota State’s running attack similarly brutalized them. But in week two, Poly lost by just a touchdown to Weber State, the Sky’s defending champs and FCS quarterfinalists a year ago.

So bigger tests await – and for the coach, too.

“All those guys want 15 to 20 carries instead of four or five,” he said. “They’re hungry. But you only have so much food for them.”

But he’s not going to forget: It’s what’s behind what’s up front that counts.

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