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Sports >  EWU football

John Blanchette: Eastern Washington always has a chance to win with Eric Barriere, unless he’s watching from the sideline

Nov. 6, 2021 Updated Sat., Nov. 6, 2021 at 9:04 p.m.

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

The belt holds up the pants. The loops hold up the belt.

Like the comedian asked, “Who is the real hero?”

It’s the same sort of minidrama that plays out upon the giant bloodstain of Roos Field for opponents of the Eastern Washington Eagles.

Do you win by getting Eric Barriere off the field? Or by keeping him off?

Well, divvying up the credit was no real concern for the Montana State Bobcats on Saturday after their first takedown of Eastern in a decade. But there was some unanticipated aiding and abetting to their cause.

It came when EWU coach Aaron Best waved his quarterback to the sidelines and elected to punt with 140 seconds left in MSU’s 23-20 victory.

Yes, field position made it easily rationalized, justified, even prudent. It wasn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing moment – not with that much time remaining.

It just became one.

Because the best Football Championship Subdivision player in the nation, at least by local acclaim, never returned. And having him on the field was the only way the Eagles were going to rescue themselves.

Instead, they lost on the red. Again.

And they won’t be Big Sky Conference champions. Again.

The dominant Sky team of the 20-teens has now earned a share of the title just once in the past five seasons, if you count that dubious, half-a-loaf exercise of last spring. OK, there remains a mathematical chance for the Eags over the next two weeks, but only if a giant hole in the earth opens to swallow two or three Big Sky rivals.

Of course, there are always playoffs and the redemption offered there, though the Eagles have made their path in the postseason more difficult without home-field assurances.

Not that the home field has been a cure-all.

They have now lost back-to-back Big Sky games at Roos – albeit by the narrowest of margins. And it’s hard to say which is more surreal – the fact that they’ve dropped two in a row at home, or that it’s not the first time. It happened back in 2015, to Northern Arizona and Portland State. For a school that’s fallen just 11 times since the red went down in 2010 and had won 20 in a row at home through mid-October, even one loss weighs heavy.

“This game is cruel sometimes,” Best said. “Four points, two losses. But it doesn’t matter how many you lost by. It’s the fact that you lost.”

Eastern lost this one because their nation-leading offense came in a not-especially close second to the Big Sky’s best defense. You can pick your stat – 3 of 13 on third down, five three-and-outs, a season-low 314 yards, minus-12½ minutes in possession time. But the Bobcats plugged up the run game, got respectable pressure and from the 9:32 mark of the second quarter to the start of the fourth, allowed the Eagles offense less than 5 minutes to operate.

Meanwhile, MSU’s Isaiah Ifanse was slashing his way to 217 rushing yards – but the Eagles still surrendered only 23 points.

“You would hope and count on an Eastern offense to score more than 23,” Best allowed.

But when MSU’s Sebastian Valdez cut down Dennis Merritt for a 2-yard loss at the Eastern 10 inside 3 minutes to play, Best weighed his options and sent on the punt team.

“The thought was, if we moved out past the 15 or 20, it was going to be four-down territory down three,” Best said. “I just didn’t see us at the 9-yard line flipping the field (for MSU). That’s too tight. Then it’s first-and-goal.

“So we decided to punt and hope we’d burn the three timeouts and get them to punt and be in the same position we were with a minute-plus left. With our offense, anything is bound to happen.”

Unless it can’t get the ball. Ifanse blasted for two more first downs, and the Bobcats remained atop the Sky.

The Eagles find themselves in the strange position of being the nation’s No. 5-ranked team – that number will change Monday, obviously – in need of a little soul-searching.

“We’ve been on seven wins for two weeks,” Best said. “We’ve got to find ways, especially against a really good defense, to score more points. I don’t know if it’s creativity, or lack of execution. You’ve got to give the defense credit – they take some things away. But if you take something away, something else is open.

“It hurts. Senior day at home, two losses in a row. We’re not going to dwell on it, but those are facts.”

The other fact is, the Sky is going to put five teams into the FCS playoffs, and Eastern’s going to be one of them.

“The season is far from over,” linebacker Ty Graham insisted. “We’ve got the best player in the country. Anything can happen.”

Only if he’s on the field.

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