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Eastern Washington football finished strongly in 2019 but fell below expectations

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 26, 2019

Eastern Washington Eric Barriere  dodges a tackle  against  Idaho on Sept. 21, 2019, at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington Eric Barriere dodges a tackle against Idaho on Sept. 21, 2019, at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Of the 24 teams invited to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the best eight are awarded first-round byes and subsequent home games.

Four Big Sky Conference members earned those spots – an all-time high – legitimizing claims that it’s the country’s best league.

Eastern Washington, the Big Sky preseason favorite coming off a run to the 2018 national title game, wasn’t among them.

The Eagles, who finished 7-5 overall and 6-2 in conference play, missed the playoffs for the second time in head coach Aaron Best’s three seasons.

But their rivals improved.

Weber State continued its climb, winning at least a share of the Big Sky title for the third straight year and earning the No. 3 seed.

Often a conference doormat, Sacramento State swiftly turned things around under first-year head coach and former Utah and EWU offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, sharing the title with Weber State and earning the No. 4 seed.

Montana State and Montana returned to their former glory, earning fifth and sixth seeds, respectively. North Dakota State is in its usual No. 1 spot.

The unranked Eagles had the fifth-best resume in the Big Sky, but it wasn’t enough to convince the FCS playoff committee it deserved an at-large berth. The eight teams below EWU had losing records, and the Eagles didn’t face Montana State or Weber State due the league’s unbalanced scheduling.

By its own lofty standard, EWU’s 2019 campaign was disappointing. After losing the national championship 38-24 to NDSU in January, the Eagles went as far as adopting “Advance the standard” as their 2019 slogan, primed to take the next step after returning a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball.

Frisco, Texas – annual site of the FCS national title game – was a destination often uttered by EWU fans throughout the summer months.

Instead, the Eagles went backward.

EWU totaled six wins against Division I foes, five of which had losing records. A 35-20 home triumph over eventual playoff qualifer North Dakota (7-4) shined brightest for the Eagles, who went 5-0 at home.

Behind Walter Payton Award finalist Eric Barriere (355 total yards per game), one of the league’s best running backs in Antoine Custer (1,228 rushing yards) and a decorated offensive line, EWU’s No. 1 offense (524 yards per game) was still electrifying under first-year offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker.

A series of road lulls ultimately ruined EWU’s season, though.

  • A fourth quarter at Jacksonville State (6-6) in which the Eagles totaled 12 yards in a 49-45 loss.
  • A 28-0 halftime deficit at Idaho (5-7), in which the Eagles flipped the switch in the second half before falling 35-28.
  • A 21-7 first-quarter deficit at Sacramento State (9-3), where the Hornets put away the Eagles in the fourth quarter in a 48-27 decision.
  • After EWU jumped out to a 14-3 lead against a Montana team (9-3) without starting quarterback Dalton Sneed, the Grizzlies held the Eagles to 70 second-half passing yards in a 34-17 win, dropping the Eagles to 2-4.

Barriere told reporters he played injured the majority of the season, which may have explained why he wasn’t playing as freely and run-oriented as he did in 2018. That may have contributed to EWU’s back-breaking lulls, but the Eagles also cited adjusting to new schemes.

Other glaring issues for EWU included ranking first in the Big Sky in penalty yards (940) and second in total penalties (98), and struggling mightily on special teams.

EWU gave up the most kickoff return yardage (1,224 total return yards) in the league and ranked 11th in punting (35.7 yards per punt), often leading to great field position for opposing offenses.

Under first-year defensive coordinator Eti Ena, EWU’s defense ranked ninth in the Big Sky. Its young pass defense ranked 109th in the country (266 passing yards a game).

The Eagles weren’t consistent with the pass rush, totaling 18 sacks and giving quarterbacks time to operate against young cornerbacks. Portland State’s 560 yards of total offense against EWU in the season finale was representative of the Eagles’ defensive struggles.

Losing their best linebacker, junior Chris Ojoh, to an ankle injury early in the season didn’t help.

EWU showed its fortitude in the second half of the season, winning five of its last six games to avoid its first losing campaign since 2006. A nonconference FCS win would have given EWU the seven wins it needed to be seriously considered by the playoff committee, but the Eagles scheduled NCAA Division II Lindenwood.

When a ranked EWU team finished the season with seven Division I wins in 2017 before being being snubbed by the committee, it shocked a sizable portion of the Eagles’ contingent.

There wasn’t much shock Sunday when EWU didn’t make the field, only disappointment in a season that started with a No. 4 ranking end before Thanksgiving.

“I would trade all of the individual accolades for a guaranteed spot in the playoffs,” said Custer.

Best said that making or missing the playoffs didn’t dictate whether the season was successful.

“It doesn’t put a stamp good or bad on the season,” Best said. “There are people outside of our room that cast us away after a 1-3 start. Here we are 6-2 in the conference after going 8-0, 6-2 and 7-1 before that – there aren’t many teams in this conference that can boast of that. So it’s not how you start, but it’s how you finish.”

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