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Dan Thompson: Eastern Washington likely in this position with healthy Gage Gubrud, but Eagles are happy with Eric Barriere under center

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 15, 2018, 11:09 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

There’s a good chance that if the injured former starter Gage Gubrud was healthy, Eastern Washington still gets to this spot.

With Gubrud at quarterback, playing in fair late-fall weather at Roos Field with a potent running game and a shutdown – if injury-decimated – defense, the Eagles still win in the semifinals to earn the matchup with North Dakota State that eluded them in semifinal losses in 2012 and 2013.

The Eagles simply were better than the Maine on Saturday, UC Davis the week before and Nicholls State in the round before that.

But in the long run, the progression of Eric Barriere – still just a redshirt sophomore – is going to pay off big time for the Eastern Washington football team, which thumped Maine 50-19.

That’s because Barriere gives the Eagles a better running threat than Gubrud and potentially a higher ceiling as a passer, judging by how he can sling a football to all segments of the field.

He also is quickly mitigating the concerns raised by earlier performances this season against the best of the Big Sky Conference.

Quipped Maine coach Joe Harasymiak, “I can’t believe he’s the backup here.”

Backup no more, of course, not since taking over full time on Oct. 6 against Southern Utah, and then struggling a week later in Eastern Washington’s most recent loss, 14-6 at Weber State.

Barriere was 19 of 42 in that game for just 185 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns. The Eagles were playing the best defense in the conference in Ogden, Utah, a place they haven’t played well the past couple of trips.

“When we went back and watched the film against Weber State, stuff was there, receivers were open, plays were to be made,” Barriere said. “I just didn’t do a good job of hitting my receivers. … I just tried to get better.”

He’s certainly done that.

Consider his line Saturday. In thrashing Maine’s defense, Barriere completed 21 of 30 passes for a career-high 352 yards against a unit that fancies itself “The Black Hole” of defenses.

He set a program postseason record with seven touchdown passes, so many that it was difficult to ask about the ones you wanted to in the postgame interviews.

Circumstances favor Barriere, of course.

Certainly, he has talent around him. There’s a reason the Eagles have been so successful the past decade, and it’s not simply because of their run of great quarterbacks (though that doesn’t hurt). They have great receivers, and Saturday their turnover machine of a defense handed Barriere two short fields – one just 1 yard long – that the Eagles turned into two quick touchdowns.

Any quarterback will be more comfortable with a two-score lead.

But that Barriere has played his best two games in the playoffs – he has completed 42 of 55 attempts his past two games – speaks to how quickly he has gained confidence.

“EB is that man,” said Nsimba Webster, who had nine catches for 188 yards and four touchdowns. “He’s grown so much. Each game you keep seeing him get better and better, and he still has his junior and senior year to go, so you haven’t seen nothing yet.”

For his own part, Barriere said he’s just faster on making decisions: getting the ball out quickly to what were often wide-open receivers against the Black Bears, who didn’t record a sack for the first time in more than two seasons and could barely get a hand on Barriere.

Within the pocket, he was poised. On his second touchdown, to Jayce Gilder on his tippy-toes in the back of the end zone, Barriere cooly stood his ground as Maine rover Sterling Sheffield closed in on him.

He can throw deep with accuracy and across the middle with precision, as he showed on numerous occasions.

And he left the pocket when he had to, running seven times – a few of those by design – for 53 yards.

He made a few bad decisions. Coach Aaron Best raised one example, a misguided throw into the end zone at the end of the first half that Maine intercepted, and another into triple coverage a few plays before that that should have been picked off but wasn’t.

Those might have been costly on another day, but not with the Eagles up 28-0. Barriere will learn. He’s proven in nine starts this year that he can do just that.

He has two more years.

Gubrud would have led them this far, and his wealth of experience might have been better than Barriere’s superior raw talent against the best FCS school of the decade.

Taking down the unbeaten Bison (14-0) on Jan. 5 will be a different animal than beating the Black Bears.

But in the long run, the Eagles are better off that Barriere has worked through some tentativeness this season rather than next, when they will be poised for another shot at the national title and certainly at least a Big Sky championship.

Who knows? Maybe Barriere can pull off the upset in a few weeks.

At the least, he will go down as another great quarterback to play on the red turf in Cheney.

At the most? He still has two more years – plus a championship game – to prove he can be the best.

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