Redemption had to wait, but now it’s readily available for Eastern Washington.
With a few caveats, of course.
The Eagles have waited 15 months to begin atonement for an underachieving 7-5 campaign in 2019, a season in which an assortment of proven weapons and experience wasn’t enough to the Football Championship Subdivision power to get the top of a loaded Big Sky Conference or reach the playoffs.
Then a subsequent coronavirus pandemic caused a six-month delay to EWU’s 2020 season, blowing up the schedule and putting the Eagles and dozens of other FCS teams in rare predicament: a February kickoff.
EWU opens its six-game winter/spring season on Saturday at rival Idaho.
Thirty-five FCS teams around the country – including Big Sky programs Montana, Montana State, Sacramento State, Portland State and Northern Colorado – pulled the plug on the truncated season.
The FCS playoffs, which begin in late April, have been cut down to 16 teams instead of the usual 24, although the bracket will culminate in its usual spot: Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, home of the national title game.
Conference and national titles will likely come with asterisks. Live fans will be spread thin due to social distancing restrictions, which will vary by state. Coronavirus protocols will be taxing.
EWU, a program with 13 consecutive winning seasons, doesn’t care.
It gets to play football again, and the Eagles, ranked No. 12 in the latest FCS preseason media poll, are approaching the Kibbie Dome this week with the same fervor they had last summer when they were scheduled to visit Gainesville, Florida, to face the Southeastern Conference power Gators.
A strange start, abbreviated schedule and the free season – it won’t count against a player’s eligibility – haven’t changed the approach.
“I am treating every game like a playoff game, to be honest,” said EWU quarterback Eric Barriere, the preseason Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. “I am coming into the season with the same fire as 2020 before it was postponed.”
Barriere, a dual threat who helped lead EWU to the national title game in 2018, has talent around him.
All Big-Sky receiver Andrew Boston and fellow returning starters Talolo Limu-Jones and Johnny Edwards combined for 106 catches, 1,860 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019.
Behind Barriere is a stable of running backs, including senior leaders Tamarick Pierce (1,014 career rushing yards and 18 touchdowns) and Dennis Merritt, who were forced to redshirt in 2019 due to injury.
EWU, annually among the top offenses in the country, averaged an FCS-best 524.8 yards per game in 2019 but sputtered with then-first year offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker, especially in the red zone.
Fourth-year head coach Aaron Best continues to beat on the consistency drum when approaching Idaho, a team that upset the Eagles 35-27 last season in Moscow.
“There were games where we played the best football I’ve ever seen in all my years as a part of this football program,” Best said. “But at other times we played some of the worst ball I’ve ever seen. Luck and the injury bug sometimes get involved, but you have to be more consistent in league or nonleague. You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low.”
While the Eagles return plenty of tested skills players, they lose one of the country’s most experienced offensive lines, now anchored by All-Big Sky tackle Tristen Taylor, the lone returning starter.
Shoemaker isn’t worried.
“Best and (offensive line coach Jase) Butorac can develop linemen, and they’ll have them ready to go,” Shoemaker said. “They’ve been in this situation before.”
The Eagles’ defense struggled in 2019, ranking ninth in the Big Sky in points per game (34.6).
Their two most menacing linebackers, Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach, were plagued by injuries, ultimately forcing Ojoh to redshirt.
The cornerbacks were young and inexperienced and didn’t get much help from a defensive line that had trouble applying pressure under first-year defensive coordinator Eti Ena.
But now most of those positions are bolstered by experience, health and transfers, including former Idaho starting linebacker Ty Graham, ex-Arizona State safety Ely Doyle and former Washington defensive end Jusstis Warren, who used an injury redshirt in 2019.
Calin Criner is a two-year starting safety who leads the back end of the defense, but EWU’s defensive front is thin on size and experience.
Junior defensive end Mitchell Johnson has started games at EWU, but the Eagles lost their primary defensive tackle and biggest body, Keith Moore, to the NCAA transfer portal.
Ena is seeing more leadership and growth than 2019, when Weber State, the preseason Big Sky favorite, won its third consecutive league title.
“I love the way things are working right now. Great leadership,” Ena said. “I really like the mentality and the way guys are.”
The Eagles, whose two-deep depth chart for the Idaho game features 10 freshmen, also feature All-Big Sky kicker and former Coeur d’Alene High standout Seth Harrison, who was 12 for 12 on field goals in 2019 and 50 for 53 on extra points.
Best knows that if EWU is to avoid a third postseason absence in four years, it can’t settle for field goals or cough up the football.
A six-game schedule (Idaho twice, Northern Arizona, Cal Poly, UC Davis and Idaho State) that doesn’t feature a tradition-rich Big Sky power, or a team that had a winning record in 2019, should help the Eagles’ cause.
“It starts with turnovers, then it’s third-down conversion percentage and red zone,” Best said. “We have to move the sticks to get to the red zone, and those are the three things we’ve hammered home these past few years.
“We have to be better in those three areas than our opponent.”
Player to watch: Barriere
Fifth in Walter Payton Award voting in 2019, Barriere has more than 6,000 passing yards, 1,200 rushing yards and 73 touchdowns in 30 games.