LAS VEGAS – Former Eastern Washington defensive back Robert Puller was ready to join Eagles fans in Gainesville, Florida, for the 2020 season opener.
The pandemic ruined those plans.
Puller, known to fans and teammates as “Butter” while playing for the Eagles from 1987-91, wasn’t about to miss a chance to watch Thursday’s season opener less than 1 mile from the famed Las Vegas Strip.
“The excitement for us to play UNLV, in the Raiders’ stadium, opening game on a Thursday night to kick off college football – I couldn’t be more excited,” Puller said from the Twitch Lounge inside Allegiant Stadium.
“Just to be here and be excited about the Eagle Nation and the things that we do, hopefully, we come up with a (win).”
They did, as the Eagles outlasted UNLV in an exhilarating 35-33 double-overtime win.
Shaking off a sluggish start, Eastern Washington built a two-touchdown lead, pulling ahead 20-6 before the Rebels used a late rally to tie the game.
But soaking up the atmosphere with the bright lights of The Strip shining through the Lanai doors at the north end of the 61,000-seat, $2 billion venue, quarterback Eric Barriere threw touchdown passes on the first play of both overtimes, with a 2-point conversion in the second extra round providing the final margin.
“This is my first time really being inside an NFL stadium, so just being in this atmosphere, just looking up and just seeing the billboards definitely gets your blood flowing,” Barriere said.
“It definitely makes the excitement a lot better.”
Linebacker Ty Graham credited the team’s spring season for the mettle it showed late in the game and being able to withstand UNLV’s furious comeback.
“We had to learn how to recuperate everything – bodies, minds – and get ready for that quick turnaround in a short three months,” Graham said. “Leading up to the game, you didn’t see a lot of drop-off. Today really showed. We showed a lot of good talent and a lot of hard work in general. We were able to bond as a brotherhood in the spring and I really think that carried over today.”
Barriere, who completed 29 of 39 pass attempts for 374 yards and three touchdowns, said the excitement began when the Eagles first learned they’d get a chance to play inside Allegiant Stadium, also home of the Las Vegas Raiders.
But it wasn’t the only reason energy was flowing through the locker room.
“We knew this was a chance to let the world know Eastern Washington is a really good program and we can compete with the FBS teams,” Barriere said.
Since 2008, the Eagles have traveled 12 times for nonconference games against FBS schools, mostly staying in the Pacific Northwest to face in-state rivals Washington and Washington State, three times each. The farthest the Eagles have gone is Lubbock, Texas, to face Texas Tech, in 2008 and 2017. They played in Reno against Nevada in 2010. They also played at Oregon, Oregon State and Cal along the way.
Las Vegas was a much different scene. Scattered throughout the announced gathering of 21,970 fans was a strong representation of EWU supporters.
Among the crowd was Shawn Taylor, father of senior All-American offensive lineman Tristen Taylor, proudly wearing a No. 65 jersey with “EWU DAD” plastered across the back. Taylor, from Northern California, said he attends all the season openers and has tried to attend every game during his son’s career. While he’s been to Las Vegas a number of times, this trip was a no-brainer since UNLV offered his son a scholarship five years ago.
He’s also confident it won’t be the last time he sees his son step foot on an NFL field.
“I believe in him. He’s my son and I believe in him,” Taylor said. “And I think if he gets a chance he’s gonna do really good.”
EWU tennis player Zoey Nelson happened to be in Las Vegas with her boyfriend, Kale Reichersamer, and didn’t realize the Eagles were playing UNLV until after they arrived.
“We had just kind of come here on a whim and realized, ‘Hey, Eastern is playing,’ ” said Nelson, a senior who was named to the spring Big Sky All-Academic team. “The first thing we did when we got here is bought tickets. We were like, ‘Let’s go, we’re in it.’ ”
The Eagles open the home portion of their schedule Sept. 11 against Central Washington.
W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez
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