Winning a pivotal fifth game in a truncated six-game schedule alleviated some stress for Eastern Washington, perhaps more than the pressure its come-from-behind 38-31 win over Idaho at Roos Field on Saturday provided.
Weber State (5-0) locked up the Big Sky Conference’s lone automatic bid to the 16-team Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, but the No. 8 Eagles (5-1) are widely considered likely to earn one of the six at-large berths for postseason play that begins April 24.
In a coronavirus-altered season in which dozens of the nation’s FCS teams – even Big Sky powers Montana and Montana State – opted out of the rare spring season, the Eagles appear to have the sort of resume that will extend its strange but electric campaign.
EWU, which is on a five-game winning streak since opening the season with a 28-21 loss at Idaho in February, may host or travel for its first-round game if the Eagles’ name is called in Sunday’s FCS playoff selection show that airs at 8:30 a.m. on ESPNU.
Multiple FCS pundits have predicted former Big Sky member and sixth-ranked North Dakota (4-1, Missouri Valley) hosting the Eagles to open a playoff bracket that typically consists of 24 teams.
It would be the first time the Eagles traveled for a playoff game in the red turf era, which began in 2010.
Considering the storms fourth-year coach Aaron Best’s squad has weathered to this point – local restrictions when other schools were in full pads in the fall and winter, positive coronavirus tests, injuries and key players leaving the program – the Eagles are happy to be in playoff conversation again, regardless of who or where they play.
“When we hear our name on Sunday, we’ll kind of recapture and refocus on who we’ll play, where we’ll play and how we’ll play,” said Best, who missed EWU’s season opener due to a positive COVID-19 test before rejoining the Eagles on the sidelines and winning the remainder of their games.
EWU has wins over Idaho State (2-4), Idaho (2-3), Northern Arizona (2-2), Cal Poly (0-3) and a resume-boosting 32-22 triumph at then-11th ranked UC Davis (3-2) two weeks ago. It faced Idaho twice.
Weber State and EWU did not play each other, but the two teams could potentially meet in Ogden, Utah, in the playoffs, which would be their first meeting since 2018.
As confident as EWU is about a playoff berth, there’s a hint of cautious optimism after the team was snubbed by the FCS playoff committee in 2017 after finishing 7-4 record and having a Top 25 ranking. The Eagles met a similar fate in 2019 at 7-5.
“We’ve done enough on our resume to get it done, and last week’s win (at UC Davis) cemented it. We went on the road and beat a top-15 team in the nation, and we controlled that game from start to finish,” Best said. “The Idaho game wasn’t pretty but it was still a win. We are 5-1 in the Big Sky Conference and have the best player in America (EWU quarterback Eric Barriere), and that should get us into the 16-team bracket.”
Barriere, an All-American who leads the Big Sky Conference in total offense (387 yards per game), has guided an Eagle offense that leads the league in scoring (40 points per game) and yards (558 per game).
With EWU idle this week, the talented senior wants the Eagles to take advantage of the break and not take any risks that could compromise a potential playoff run.
“Rest and get guys healthy, because a couple guys went down (Saturday),” said Barriere, who has earned Big Sky Player of the Week three times in six weeks this season, “(and) making sure everyone is being smart because obviously we still got COVID (to avoid), so we gotta make sure people aren’t doing dumb stuff, not going out, but just stay together as a team.”
Asterisk game? Best referenced EWU’s loss 28-21 loss to Idaho in February when Eagles kicker Seth Harrison kicked a field goal that split the uprights and appeared to give EWU a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. But the kick was called no good – and quickly went viral – before the Big Sky Conference admitted its momentum-changing mistake.
Best suggested his team might be the league’s co-champion if the controversial kick had been called correctly.
“We are 5-1 with an asterisk, because the Big Sky came out and said that was a made field goal,” Best said. “It could have changed the complexity of the game. I know it wouldn’t have been 28-21.”
League leaders everywhere: Barriere leads the conference in passing (2,188 yards) and his favorite target, Talolo Limu-Jones, is the league’s No. 1 receiver with 44 catches for 721 yards and four touchdowns.
Freddie Roberson (470 yards) and Andrew Boston (303) also rank in the top 10 in receiving yardage. Running back Tamarick Pierce is second in rushing with 78 carries for 437 yards and four touchdowns.
Smith saves best for Idaho: EWU safety Anthany Smith said he was already looking forward to facing Idaho again an hour after EWU’s February loss in Moscow.
He had 10 tackles and returned an interception 71 yards for a touchdown in the losing effort.
Smith brought it against the Vandals again on Saturday with 17 tackles.