SEATTLE – When budding Eastern Washington linebacker Chris Ojoh reported to fall camp 15 pounds heavier than he was a year ago, his teammates felt sympathy for opposing ballcarriers.
Ojoh was already one of the fiercest linebackers in the Big Sky Conference, a distinction he earned in the Eagles’ run to the Football Championship Subdivision national title game.
He started one game as a true freshman in 2017 but hadn’t established himself as a full-time starter in EWU’s senior-laden defense last season until the ninth game, after starter Kurt Calhoun went down with a career-ending injury.
Ojoh still finished as EWU’s second-leading tackler (105 tackles).
On Saturday, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Ojoh was flying around Husky Stadium in the Eagles’ 47-14 loss to No. 13 Washington.
EWU coach Aaron Best wasn’t surprised that his standout junior looked the part of a Power 5 linebacker.
Ojoh racked up a game-high 11 tackles (nine solo) and busted up a passing play with a bone-crunching hit in the backfield.
Ojoh said he was fueled by going up against a Pac-12 power.
“Playing a big team like this, I knew I had to bring my ‘A’ game,” Ojoh said. “I just wanted to show everyone what I can do.”
For a EWU defense that yielded a total of 570 yards and four first-half touchdowns, Ojoh was seemingly involved in every other play.
“He’s been a bright spot since he got into the starting lineup (last season),” Best said. “High energy. Very instinctive, he’s got a motor and athleticism. He’s got ‘it.’ ”
Two years ago Ojoh, a Los Angeles native who attended the same high school (Bishop Alemany) as former EWU quarterback Vernon Adams, started his college career against Texas Tech.
Much has changed since.
“I’ve definitely grown mentally and physically since Texas Tech,” Ojoh said. “I’ve kept trying to better my game, every year.”
Ojoh, who racked up 39 tackles in the 2018 postseason, didn’t earn All-Big Sky honors because he was a reserve most of the season.
Some conference pundits believe he’s the best candidate not currently on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list, an award given to the best linebacker in the FCS.
But that’s OK with Ojoh.
“I’ve always kind of been under the radar, so I’m used to it,” he said.
FBS pest no more?
FCS teams are supposed to lose to FBS teams, but the EWU faithful had been spoiled.
The Eagles were a pest for Power 5 teams from from 2011-16, upsetting No. 25 Oregon State 49-46 in 2013 and Washington State 45-42 in 2016.
EWU also nearly upset Washington in 2014 (59-52) and 2011 (30-27) and racked up 549 yards against Oregon in a 61-42 loss in 2015, months after EWU star Vernon Adams left the Eagles for the Ducks.
The past three years have been a different story.
EWU has been outscored 162-48 by FBS teams in the Best era, including losses to Texas Tech (56-10), Washington State (59-24) and the Huskies (47-14).
Washington State wasn’t ranked when it handled the Eagles in Pullman last year, but finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll after a school-record 11-win season.
Solid day for Merritt
Antoine Custer, an All-Big Sky running back and four-year contributor, was expected to start against Washington.
Dennis Merritt – another scatback from Leavenworth, Washington – earned his first collegiate start instead.
Merritt had five carries for 37 yards and four catches for 25 yards.
Custer finished with 28 yards on 14 carries.
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