Eags denied playoff spot as Sblendorio picks up final weekly hon - SWX Right Now-Sports for Spokane, CdA, Tri-Cities, WA

Eags denied playoff spot as Sblendorio picks up final weekly honor

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By EWU Athletics

A near record-breaking performance by wide receiver Nic Sblendorio earned him an honor on Sunday (Nov. 19), but earlier in the day the Eastern Washington University football team was dealt a shocking blow when it was not selected to play in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
 
Eastern wrapped up a 7-4 finish overall and 6-2 record in league play with a 59-33 romp over Portland State on Saturday, a game in which the senior caught nine passes for 273 yards and a pair of scores. As a result, College Sports Madness picked him as its Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week.
 
Sblendorio came 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 had 274 yards versus UC Davis in his senior season in 2016 for the Roos Field record.
 
A 2013 graduate of Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., Sblendorio had his fourth 100-yard receiving performance in his career, including 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.
 
He closed the 2017 season with 72 catches to rank 16th in school history, with 912 yards and five scores. In his 49-game career (20 as a starter), he caught 151 passes to rank 15th in school history for 1,990 yards and 11 scores.
 
Sblendorio was one of 14 seniors who thought the victory over Portland State – and subsequent losses by other schools around the nation – was enough to get the Eagles into the playoffs for a 13th time. Eastern's suffered three losses to FCS teams with a combined 28-5 record. North Dakota State and Southern Utah received byes and will host games in the second round, while Weber State and Northern Arizona received at-large berths and will host first-round games.
 
"Shocked. Absolutely shocked," said first-year Eastern head coach Aaron Best, who has been an assistant coach or player for nine of EWU's previous 12 berths. "I thought our resume was bold and strong, and it's my firm belief that we are one of the best 24 teams in the nation. We're exciting and fun, we won seven games and our strength of schedule is up there. We won seven of our last nine and it wasn't good enough. It's a moment that we'll look back upon and motivate us moving forward. But shocked and alarming are the words to describe not seeing our name before the selection show had concluded."

Thanks to voters understanding EWU's strength of schedule, Eastern finished the regular season ranked 17th in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, which was announced prior to the pairings announcement. Northern Arizona was ranked 25th, Southern Utah was 12th and Weber State was 11th.
 
While they were 0-2 against ranked FCS members in 2017, the Eagles did not have had what would be considered a "bad" loss in FCS play, which helped them the most in their case or one of 14 at-large berths in the 24-team playoff field. The Eagles closed the regular season on a two-game winning streak and were winners of seven of their last nine. The lone losses in Big Sky play were 46-28 at Southern Utah on Oct. 21 and 28-20 versus Weber State on Nov. 4, and EWU also lost 40-13 to North Dakota State and 56-10 to Texas Tech to open the year.
 
North Dakota State enters the playoffs 10-1, and Weber State and Southern Utah are both 9-2 after finishing as league co-champions at 7-1. Texas Tech, a member of FBS, is 5-6 after a 3-0 start. Northern Arizona got into the playoffs with a 7-4 record, and EWU will play a non-conference game in Flagstaff, Ariz., next Sept. 8.
 
Despite Sunday's disappointing outcome, Best vows Eastern will continue to schedule the toughest opposition possible in the future.
 
"Competitors compete, and we want to be in a situation where we play those tough games," he said. "We are going to continue to play those games and we're not going to keep ourselves from playing them in order to get to eight or nine wins and get into the playoffs. In this case, I believe we are one of the best 24 teams and we didn't get in."
 
The Eagles will have to take solace in the school's 11th-straight season of finishing 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.
 
"It's unfortunate, not just for the seniors but the other people in and around the program," Best added. "They did enough to give themselves a chance to play a 12th game. It wasn't a matter of if we were going to see our name, but we thought it was merely a matter of when. I think we're all surprised, and that's probably an understatement. We would love to represent the Big Sky Conference and Eastern Washington in that field of 24."

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