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Eastern Washington tops Portland State in final chance to impress FCS Playoff committee

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 23, 2019

Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer Jr. (28) runs in for a touchdown against Portland State Saturday in Cheney. EWU won 53-46. (James Snook / For The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer Jr. (28) runs in for a touchdown against Portland State Saturday in Cheney. EWU won 53-46. (James Snook / For The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington’s 53-46 dispatching of Portland State was representative of its fluctuant campaign.

The Eagles’ choppy start swiftly turned into a 28-point lead on Saturday at Roos Field, a regular-season Dam Cup finale between Big Sky Conference rivals.

EWU (7-5, 6-2 Big Sky) was then forced to hold off the upset-minded Vikings (5-7, 4-6) before securing its fourth straight win and fifth triumph in six weeks.

A year in which the Big Sky preseason favorite started the season with a 2-4 mark and played unranked for the first time since 2011, EWU found life down the stretch and earned its 13th consecutive winning season.

The Eagles, who own the Football Championship Subdivision’s top-ranked offense (524 yards per game), also set a school record with 14 straight home wins.

But is it all enough to sway the FCS playoff committee, which releases its 24-team playoff bracket Sunday at 9:30 a.m. on ESPNU?

EWU – a program many pundits have outside the at-large berth bubble – has its fingers crossed.

“We left all of our chips out there,” running back Antoine Custer said. “Hopefully the committee thinks we deserve a chance.”

“We’ll see if they’ll give us an opportunity,” safety Tysen Prunty said.

“Regardless of what the naysayers say or outsiders say,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “Finishing 6-2 in the toughest conference in the nation is pretty special.”

Fourth-ranked Sacramento State (9-3, 7-1) and fifth-ranked Weber State (9-3, 7-1) earned a share of the Big Sky crown on Saturday. It is Weber State’s third straight title.

Third-ranked Montana (9-3, 6-2), eighth-ranked Montana State (9-3, 6-2) and EWU all finished with the same mark in conference play, but five of the Eagles’ six Division I wins were against teams with losing records, a résumé coupled with an 0-2 mark against the two playoff locks (Montana and Sacramento State) on their schedule.

Road losses to Idaho (5-7) and Jacksonville State (6-6) also hurt the Eagles.

Due to the 13-team conference’s unbalanced scheduling, EWU didn’t face Weber State or Montana State this season in games that may have potentially boosted its résumé.

It appeared Saturday that the Eagles were going to post another convincing win against one of the Big Sky’s eight losing teams to help their postseason cause.

EWU couldn’t find its offensive rhythm much of the first half and was tied at 17 after Davis Alexander connected with Davis Koetter on a 25-yard touchdown.

The Eagles flipped the switch, though, scoring the game’s next 28 points to take a 45-17 lead early in the third quarter.

Interceptions by Prunty and Tre Weed and a fumble recovery by Jack Sendelbach helped set up three EWU touchdowns.

“We needed that spark and the defense definitely gave us that spark,” Custer said.

Custer had a career-high 218 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, and quarterback Eric Barriere shook off a 2-for-12 start to complete 12 of 29 passes for 260 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Barriere was also menacing with his legs, scoring on a 10-yard touchdown run and escaping Portland State on a key third down in the fourth quarter to help thwart the Vikings’ rally.

Portland State began a rally late in the third quarter that saw the Vikings score four of the game’s last five touchdowns, including Carlos Martin’s two-yard touchdown with 2:14 left in regulation to make it a one-score ballgame.

But Portland State’s ensuing onside kick attempt failed, and the Eagles held off a team looking to avenge its 74-23 blowout loss to the EWU in 2018.

Portland State edged the Eagles 560-559 in total yards.

“You can’t turn the ball over. Especially when we didn’t get any back,” said Vikings coach Bruce Barnum, a former EWU football player. “But this team will never quit. We have some holes as a team, but we have fight in us. They never say die.”

Redshirt freshman Freddie Roberson had 104 yards receiving for EWU, and running back Tamarick Pierce added two touchdowns.

EWU senior linebacker Andrew Katzenberger had a career-high 14 tackles.

“The best teams finish the season the strongest,” Best said. “Since 2010, I think we’re 27-4 in the month of November.”

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