Eagles win big over Portland State 59-33 - SWX Right Now-Sports for Spokane, CdA, Tri-Cities, WA

Eagles win big over Portland State 59-33

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By Eastern Washington Athletics

The Eastern Washington University football team is in an unfamiliar position, but is feeling confident.
 
After receiving first-round byes in the previous five appearances in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, the Eagles are in a wait-and-see mode following a dominant 59-33 Big Sky Conference victory over Portland State Saturday (Nov. 18) to end the 2017 regular season.
 
Senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio nearly broke a school record for receiving yards as Eastern closed the season 7-4 overall and in a tie for third in the Big Sky Conference with a 6-2 record. It's the 11th-straight season the Eagles have finished 5-3 or better in the Big Sky. The Eagles had already secured its record 11th-straight winning season and 20th in the last 22 years.
 
The Eagles took a big step toward its 13th playoff berth in school history on a day in which 14 Eagle seniors were honored in pre-game ceremonies. Eastern received positives results from throughout the nation as well, including a 48-20 victory by Southern Utah over Northern Arizona and a 35-7 victory by Weber State against Idaho State. The Thunderbirds and Wildcats are the only teams EWU lost to during the league season and shared the league title.
 
"This was a statement – that's what I will say," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best. "It was a statement. We played really well in all three phases, and really put it together after the first 30 minutes. That was a dominant performance in all three phases and I'm proud of our team."
 
Sblendorio finished with nine catches for 273 yards and a pair of touchdowns, coming just two yards from the EWU record of 275 set by Cooper Kupp (now of the Los Angeles Rams) in 2015 at Northern Colorado. Kupp also had 274 yards versus UC Davis in his senior season in 2016 for the Roos Field record.
 
Eastern finished with 728 to rank as the third-most in school history, ranking only behind the 740 at home versus Rocky Mountain and 743 on the road at Idaho State in 2013. Eastern quarterback Gage Gubrud passed for 445 yards and four scores, and running back Antoine Custer Jr. had a career-high 177 yards rushing with three more scores. Eastern's 59 points was a season high and the 14th-most in school history.
 
Eastern will find out its playoff fate at 8 a.m. Pacific time on Sunday (Nov. 19) when the FCS Playoffs Selection Show airs on ESPNU. The Eagles are hoping for one of 14 at-large berths in the 24-team field, with 10 teams receiving automatic qualification as conference champions.
 
"We'll wait it out, but we put ourselves in a position to hear our name," added Best. "Our team has done a good job through 11 games and had a lot of fun. To end on this note is awesome, and hopefully we'll get a plus-one."
 
 
Records . . .
 
* Now 7-4 for the season and 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference, the Eagles closed the regular season on a two-game winning streak and were winners of seven of their last nine. The lone losses were 46-28 at Southern Utah on Oct. 21 and 28-20 versus Weber State on Nov. 4.
 
* In the annual meeting for the "Dam Cup," Portland State finished the year 0-11 overall and 0-8 in the league. The Vikings are coached by Eastern graduate and former Eagle player Bruce Barnum, and had been outscored by an average score of 41-22 this season entering the EWU game.
 
 
What It Means . . .
 
* By finishing 7-4, the Eagles have not had what would be considered a "bad" loss in FCS play, which helps them the most in their case for one of 14 at-large berths in the 24-team playoff field. Eastern has suffered losses to highly-ranked FCS teams with a current combined 28-5 record (10-1 North Dakota State, 9-2 Weber State, 9-2 Southern Utah), plus its other loss was to FBS member Texas Tech (5-5 after a 3-0 start).
 
 
What's Next . . .
 
* Either the Eagles will advance to the FCS Playoffs for the 13th time in school history, or the Eagles will wait to open the 2018 season either on Sept. 1 against an opponent to be determined or Sept. 8 at Northern Arizona. Last season, four Big Sky Conference schools advanced to the FCS Playoffs, with EWU and North Dakota receiving first-round byes and Weber State and Cal Poly playing on the opening weekend. Four league teams were also selected in 2013 when the playoffs expanded to 24 teams, but only three were picked in 2014 and 2015. In 2015, Northern Arizona and North Dakota were both 7-4 and were left out. Eastern is one of only seven teams to have qualified for the playoffs in four of the last six seasons, and EWU had a bye to the second round each time and hosted all 11 of its games at Roos Field in that span.
 
* If Eastern were to host on Nov. 25 – most likely at 1 p.m. Pacific time -- tickets will be available for current season ticket holders at noon on Sunday. They will be able to renew online through their season ticket account or by calling 509-359-4339 from noon-6 p.m. on Sunday. The deadline to renew those seats will be 8 p.m. Monday night. There will be staff in the ticket office up to that time, starting at 9 a.m. The general public sale will start at 10 p.m. Monday night and run until the game or until sold out. Student ticket availability and location to pick-up tickets will be announced via social media outlets and via goeags.com/tickets
 
* If Eastern plays on the road, information will be provided on the EWU web page at goeags.com/tickets and via social media outlets.
 
 
Keys to Game . . .
 
* Eastern's seniors came up big on a team dominated by juniors and sophomores in the starting lineup. Nic Sblendorio led the seniors with nine receptions for 273 yards and a pair of touchdown catches. Defensive end Albert Havili had a sack, two passes broken up and three total tackles. Safety Jake Hoffman, who was playing with a broken bone in his hand and was cleared to play just two days before, had six tackles. Defensive end Marcus Saugen, a high school teammate of Hoffman's, started and had five tackles. Defensive back John Kreifels received the start at rover and had three tackles, and cornerback Victor Gamboa had three tackles and pass broken up. Andre Lino had a pair of tackles with a half-sack. Kicker Roldan Alcobendas had a field goal and made all eight of his extra points. Senior punter Jordan Dascalo, last week's Big Sky Conference Special Teams Player of the Week, averaged 44.0 yards on three punts.
 
* Prior to the game, the Eagles said goodbye to yet another special group of players in school history on "Senior Day" at Roos Field versus Portland State. The 14 Eagle seniors made their final regular season appearance at the "Inferno," and several have been a part of EWU's Big Sky Conference championships in 2013, 2014 and 2016, with playoff berths all three of those seasons. Eastern has won 34 of 40 Big Sky Conference games and 48 games overall in the last five years, starting in 2013 when many of those seniors were redshirts.

 
Turning Point . . .
 
* Ahead just 31-26 at halftime, Eastern exploded in the second half and out-scored PSU 28-0 in the third quarter. Eastern had 264 yards in the quarter, compared to just 31 for PSU. In that quarter alone, Gage Gubrud passed for 174 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including 149 yards and a TD to Nic Sblendorio.
 
 
Top Performers . . .
 
* Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud completed 17-of-32 passes for 445 yards and four touchdowns for his seventh-most yards in his career (19th in school history). He added 67 rushing yards, giving him 512 yards of total offense to rank as the seventh-most in his career (eighth all-time at EWU).
* Sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. had his third 100-yard rushing performance of his game, finishing with 177 to shatter his previous career high of 147.
* Senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio had his fourth 100-yard receiving performance in his career, finishing with 273 on nine catches. He had a 60-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter and a 74-yard TD in the third. His previous high was 189 yards earlier this season versus Montana.
* Sophomore linebacker Jack Sendelbach, last week's Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week, was second on the team in tackles with seven, just one behind fellow linebacker Ketner Kupp with eight.
 
 
Key Stats . . .
 
* The two teams combined for 57 points, 37 first downs and 765 yards of total offense in the first half alone. Eastern led 31-26 at intermission, with scoring drives of 93, 31, 66, 92 and 72 yards. Eastern's 433 yards of offense in the first half put them at a pace for 866 yards of offense.
 
 
Other Team Highlights . . .
 
* Eastern won the Dam Cup for the fourth time, including football victories in 2016 and 2017. For the third-straight year, the winner of the annual Eastern Washington versus Portland State football game is now the only deciding factor in awarding The Dam Cup, which enters its eighth year of existence in 2017. Previously, the trophy was presented to the school which accumulated the most points among competitions that included football, men's basketball, women's basketball, volleyball and soccer. Portland State won three of the first four titles, but EWU won in the 2014-15 school year. In 2015, PSU captured the trophy with a football victory, and then Eastern won it back in 2016. Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves said in 2015 that the growth of the Big Sky Conference has resulted in EWU not playing PSU consistently in all sports, and not always with equitable home games. However, each school has two regional rivals they play annually in football, so making The Dam Cup a football-only trophy made logical sense. In its eight-year existence, each school has won the trophy four times.

* The victory over PSU secured a winning record at home in 2017. In fact, Eastern is 34-6 (85.0 percent) since the red turf was installed at "The Inferno" in 2010, and the only other regular season losses for the Eagles have come against Montana State (2011), Northern Arizona (2015), North Dakota State (2017) and Weber State (2017).
 
 
Notables . . .
 
* Since 2004, EWU has lost just seven regular season games in November (Weber State in 2017; NAU, Portland State and Montana in 2015; Sac State and Weber State in 2006; and Cal Poly in 2005), with an overall record of 32-7. In November and beyond since 2004, the Eagles are now 45-15, including a 13-8 record in the FCS Playoffs. Since 2010, Eastern is 30-8 overall in November and beyond, with the lone setbacks coming in 2017 to Weber State; 2016 to Youngstown State in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs; 2015 to Portland State, Montana and Northern Arizona; 2014 to Illinois State in the playoff quarterfinals; 2013 to Towson in the playoff semifinals; and 2012 to Sam Houston State in the playoff semifinals. Until losing to Northern Arizona on Nov. 7, 2015, Eastern had won its last 19 regular season games in November, dating back to a 15-13 loss to Sacramento State on Nov. 1, 2008.
 
* Entering Saturday's game, the road team had won 12 of the last 19 meetings in the series, which PSU now leads 20-19-1. Eastern edged PSU 35-28 in Portland last season, and the year before the Vikings handed EWU a 34-31 loss at Roos Field, as well as a 43-26 pounding in in 2011 at Roos Field. Eagle victories in 2012 (41-34) and 2013 (42-41) both came down to touchdown drives by the Eagles with 31 and 85 seconds remaining, respectively. Portland State is the only Big Sky school other than Montana to have a winning record all-time against the Eagles.
 
* The Eagles have won 46 of their last 53 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011.  Eastern has won 36 of its last 42 league games, with the other losses coming against Montana and Portland State in 2015 and Northern Arizona in both 2015 and 2014. An Oct. 25, 2014, loss at Northern Arizona snapped EWU's school-record 14-game conference winning streak and a home loss against the Lumberjacks on Nov. 7, 2015, ended a streak of eight Big Sky wins in a row. Including non-conference victories (two versus MSU and one against Cal Poly) and a playoff win (Montana), the Eagles have won 40 of their last 46 versus conference foes, and are 50-7 since the 0-2 start in 2011. Including three wins at the end of the 2009 season, Eastern has a 56-11 record in league games since then.
 
 
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
 
On Response in Second Half: "It's fun to see the last game on the red in the regular season work out this way. It's been a long time since we've had one of these. They've always been down to the wire and Portland State has given us fits on both sides of the ball and on special teams. They gave us fits on the last play of the half – I'm not sure if we're the only team in America to have given up Hail-Mary's to end the second quarter in two different games. But I had a halftime speech prepared – I went with the one I used in Missoula because it worked after the Hail-Mary against Montana. My big point to them was to respond. That response was very steady – we got a three-and-out and then scored on them early. After that it was nice to get off the snide and score a lot of points in the second half – that's been kind of our nemesis the last three games. Our response was awesome in all three phases."
 
On Third Quarter: "We challenged everybody. It wasn't that we needed to make adjustments, we just needed to be better at what we were okay at. We needed to be great at it. We took it upon ourselves to get some stops on defense and score some points on offense to get some separation on the scoreboard. Our players ended up doing great things. There was a lot of energy and effort tonight, and a lot of smiles. And there were a lot of points, which helps soothe any team because points matter."
 
On Playing Best Game: "I always expect our team to play like this. We always challenge ourselves to play the best ball we can. I think we played our most complete game of the year, and it happened to be the last game on the red in the last regular season game of the year. We'll let the chips fall where they may, but we played our most complete game of the year today."

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