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An oral history: That August day, in 2014, when college football started in Cheney

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 23, 2020

Pads aren’t popping on Eastern Washington’s fresh, newly installed red turf.

The late August heat in Cheney has long signaled the beginning of tailgate parties, business-boosting foot traffic and large groups of red-clad students pacing through and around the school’s central social point, Roos Field.

But football – EWU’s fall lifeblood and primary source of camaraderie – has been pushed to the spring due to coronavirus concerns, leaving an eerie late-summer calm at the home of the Football Championship Subdivision power.

Six years ago, however, the eyes of college football fans around the country were locked onto the Eagles’ bright, atypical turf and even brighter offense.

EWU hosted fellow FCS power and postseason nemesis Sam Houston State on Aug. 23, 2014, an ESPN broadcast that was the only game on television that Saturday, a week before the overwhelming majority of NCAA football teams began their seasons.

ESPN College GameDay was essentially in Cheney, and EWU’s billboard slogan that summer conveyed the opener’s significance: College Football Starts Here.

It was enough for one of EWU’s most prominent alums – then-ESPN sports personality Colin Cowherd, now of Fox Sports – to make a rare return to his old school for his game and to accept a key to the city from Cheney’s mayor.

The top-ranked Eagles went on to rack up 634 yards and dispatch the 17th-ranked Bears 56-35 in front of a sellout crowd of 10,301 fans, a game that also marketed EWU’s brand to hundreds of thousands national viewers.

Walter Payton Award finalist and All-American quarterback Vernon Adams passed for 302 yards and four touchdowns – two to receiver Blair Bomber – and running back Quincy Forte rushed for 152 yards for the Eagles, who rode a second-half surge to run away from Sam Houston State.

Samson Ebukam had two sacks for EWU, which yielded 542 yards to the balanced Bearkats.

Here’s a look a back at the first game of the 2014 college football season.

The buildup

This was a marquee FCS game between Big Sky and Southland Conference powers, presenting a playoff atmosphere at Roos Field in August.

Behind Adams, Forte and then-freshman receiver Cooper Kupp, EWU reached the 2013 FCS semifinals and returned enough firepower in 2014 to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason media poll, one slot ahead of three-time defending national champion North Dakota State.

Sam Houston State, which reached the second round of the 2013 FCS playoffs, was eyeing a return to Frisco, Texas, after losing back-to-back national championships to NDSU in 2011 and 2012. The relatively inexperienced Bearkats were led by Keshawn Hill, one of the school’s all-time great running backs heading into 2014.

This was EWU’s opportunity to atone for two recent losses to the Bearkats, a 49-34 loss in Huntsville, Texas, in a 2013 regular season game and the more painful 45-42 loss in the 2012 FCS semifinals in Cheney.

Adding intrigue, these teams didn’t like each other.

The game was also the first for K.C. Keeler as Sam Houston State’s head coach after a long stint at Delaware – the same Delaware team that lost to EWU in the 2010 national championship.

Blair Bomber (former EWU receiver): “I remember all the hype going into that game, which was very hot. We knew they had a lot of good players. There was a lot of trash talking and a lot of posturing in warmups. I respected that about them. They weren’t pretending to be our friends. They were coming for us, and they let us know it.”

Shaq Hill (former EWU receiver): “We had a lot of animosity toward Sam Houston State. It was a rivalry, but it wasn’t a rivalry. They had our number for a while and really wanted to beat them.”

Beau Baldwin (former EWU head coach): “You’re wanting to start the season on the right foot against a quality opponent on a big stage. We played plenty of playoff games on national TV, but this was different. You could kind feel that all the eyes were on us, because the country was excited for college football to start. We were excited for that game, and we had players from the 2012 and 2013 teams that lost to Sam Houston State, and they felt like this was there opportunity to beat them at home.”

Dave Cook (EWU Sports Information Director): “As I recall, it was a short summer – and it was difficult to sneak in an annual trip to the Gorge for Watershed. It was March when we started preparations for the game, and an appearance by ESPN – not the “deuce” or “U” or “plus” either – it was the real deal in our tiny little stadium with the iconic red turf. The media attention given to the first FCS game of the season was incredible, and made the month a blur. In a flash it was upon us, made even more hectic in the fact we had another home game the week after on Aug. 30 to prepare for. For the record, those are the two earliest home games in 111 seasons of football at Eastern – both in the same season too! Early deadlines for passes, programs and other game details was daunting, but eventually achieved.”

How this game happened

The home-and-home series with Sam Houston State was scheduled a couple of years in advance, but neither program knew they’d be the first NCAA game of 2014 for the battle in Cheney when the contracts were signed.

Baldwin: “It was until the spring (of 2014) when this was presented to us. In the spring. The NCAA came with up it and the thought process was to get an FCS game to start the season, get them on the front page. They were looking at the options of the best games and came to us. We saw it as a great opportunity.”

Kupp’s pregame injury

When EWU was going through its walkthrough the day before the game, Kupp, who won the Jerry Rice Award given to the best freshman in the country the previous season, went down in pain.

Kupp and teammate Kendrick Bourne – now receivers with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, respectively – collided during an onside kick recovery drill, injuring Kupp’s ankle.

Some feared he might miss the game, but he gritted it out with limited mobility, hauling in seven passes for 62 yards and a key fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the Eagles a 42-28 lead.

Hill led the Eagles in receiving yards (77) that day.

Baldwin: “We wanted to put our best with the best hands out there on the recover unit, and it was supposed to be a jog. But KB and Coop got ultra competitive. KB goes up to get (the onside kick) and Coop was under him, and when he went down, his ankle was pretty bad. You’d think he shouldn’t have played, but he did, and we ended up sitting him the following week against Western Oregon.”

Hill: “Man, we were pissed at them.”

Bomber: “They ran into each other. Cooper was pretty banged up. He played, but I had to return punts because he was out, which I hadn’t done since I was in high school. I was pretty nervous.”

Eagles struggle early

Receivers were dropping passes. Adams was overthrowing his targets. EWU’s defense was giving up chunks of yards.

Season-opening nerves, compounded by the pressure of playing in front of a national television audience, were apparent.

Sam Houston State defensive back Trenier Orr picked off an Adams pass in the second quarter and returned it 55 yards, giving the Bearkats a 14-7 lead.

A 53-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jared Johnson later put the Eagles in a 21-14 hole, but the first of EWU running back Jalen Moore’s two touchdowns tied the game at 21-21 before halftime.

Hill: “We were so anxious, we had to calm down a bit. We knew what we can do.”

Bomber: “On one of the first drives, it was a busted coverage on a seam and Vernon lofted it up. It hit my hands, and I dropped it. When you have a guy like Vern, we went as he went. You look at the guys on that team at skill positions, the future pros. We knew once we settled down, those guys would make plays.”

Baldwin: “Typical first-game stuff. A lot of guys were trying to get their timing down.”

Cook: “The red-out crowd of 10,310 was a sight to behold, and it appeared both defenses were a little late in returning from summer vacation.”

Big second half lifts EWU

Bomber’s second touchdown grab of the day gave EWU a 28-21 lead it wouldn’t relinquish, and EWU scored 28 fourth-quarter points to put away Sam Houston State, ending its three-game losing streak against the Texas school.

Adams, who also had two touchdown connections to Bourne and another to Zach Wimberly that day, shook off a slow start to complete 26 of 48 passes for 302 yards with four touchdowns and an interception.

Adams told reporters he was “nervous and sloppy” at the start. He was also battling cramps and was getting IVs in the first half.

Sam Houston State, hindered by 16 penalties for 133 yards, was led by Johnson’s 317 passing yards and two touchdowns, as well as Hill’s 133 rushing yards.

Bomber: “(Offensive tackle) Jake Rodgers was being a full-on goon for us, taking heads off that game. Things were clicking. When you’re playing in the game, the fact you’re on ESPN is in the back of your mind, and then you watch the highlights later. This was different because were were the only college football team with highlights that night. Not Alabama and other big programs like that, just us. That’s special to reflect on.”

Hill: “That was an interesting week. It was wild. It felt like College GameDay was there.”

Baldwin: “We had that type of explosion. For those teams that we had there with Vernon and that receiving crops, we expected that. We called plays aggressively. It didn’t feel that uncommon, really. I’m not going to downplay it. It felt like something we should have done.”

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