Eagles of a Feather Stick Together
Hope surrounds EWU football heading into the offseason
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EWU football ended last season in the playoffs with a heartbreaking, last-second loss. Yet, with a new coach and returning starters, the mood surrounding the Eagles is optimistic that they can contend for a national championship in 2017.
With just a few seconds left in the playoff semifinals, the Eagles were on the verge of a trip to the national championship game for the first time since the 2010 season. The Eagles had the lead and home field advantage. Then suddenly, on one the most stunning catches anyone may ever see, Youngstown State receiver Kevin Rader caught a touchdown pass off of a defensive players back to take the lead with one second left in the fourth quarter.
Game over, season over. Suddenly the cold weather that seemed to give the Eagles an edge now just felt like a chilly reminder of the bitter disappointment in having to go home, just several steps short of their ultimate goal.
Then, the man who had led the Eagles to their first national championship, Beau Baldwin, left. Baldwin, who had built up EWU into perennial Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) contenders and Big Sky Conference champions, said goodbye in an emotional press conference and departed to become the offensive coordinator at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, the Eagles are also in the process of having to replace several coordinator positions for coaches that left for other Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opportunities.
Yet, despite the apparent adversity, the team has an optimistic attitude surrounding it. Chad Karthauser, EWU associate athletic director for the Department of Business and Finance, said he believes that even though the team had a difficult end in the playoffs, there was still much to celebrate from last year.
“When something like that happens where you have two teams [in the playoffs], and one team beats the other, the pill isn’t easy to swallow but at least it’s sugar coated, so it can go down a little easier,” said Karthauser. “I think what that does is it galvanizes the team and really gets them to realize that they were in that position from the work they did, starting with their loss to Portland State at the end of the 2015 season up until when fall camp began. All of the work that they put in translated into the amazing season that they had.”
EWU’s accomplishments in 2016 included beating an FBS opponent in the Pac-12, Washington State University, being co-champions of the Big Sky Conference with the University of North Dakota and two playoff victories, including a 38-0 shutout win over Richmond.
In addition, both quarterback Gage Gubrud and wide receiver Cooper Kupp were nominated as two of the three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
Karthauser said there are a few areas where the team will improve and build upon the team’s success in 2016, including the offensive line.
“Last year, coming into the season you had an offensive line that was completely revamped; you didn’t really see the quarterbacks get hit this year,” said Karthauser. “That offensive line will have a year of them being together again, that unit is going to be better this year than the year before.”
That offensive line was led by Aaron Best, who recently was named the new head coach after being EWU’s offensive line coach for the past nine seasons. Best has been a part of the EWU football program for 20 seasons, either as a player or a coach, and is described by Karthauser as being “incredibly engaging.” Karthauser said “he’s the kind of person you would want to play football for even if you might not have ever played football in your life.”
The Eagles are losing a few key seniors next season, including Cooper Kupp, who set several records while at EWU, including most receiving yards all time in college football, 6,464, most touchdown catches, 73 and most receptions, 428, all-time in the FCS. Karthauser said the loss of key seniors will be offset by players stepping up to fill those roles.
“You had Cooper [Kupp] go down in a couple of games this year and that offense kept humming with him not there,” said Karthauser. “So you’ve got guys who are basically waiting in the wings to have their chances to step up.”
Sophomore linebacker Alek Kacmarcik was a key part of a defense that saw improvements, from 40 points allowed per game in 2015 to 27 points allowed per game in 2016, highlighted by the playoff shutout over the University of Richmond. Kacmarcik said he is looking forward to next season and said he believes the team can accomplish their ultimate goal with Aaron Best as the new head coach.
“I think he’s going to be a very good head coach; [he is a] very discipline-oriented guy,” said Kacmarcik. “He really cares about Eastern football, [he] cares about the players. Even this morning in our workouts, I was thinking that guys are wanting to work hard right now and have an even better season and play for the national championship.”
Change at any college program is inevitable, especially at an FCS school like EWU that has had success and has a coaching staff that draws the eye of FBS teams. But with a new head coach who understands the program to go along with plenty of returning talent, optimism surrounds the Eagles that they can contend for a national championship again in 2017.