Redshirt freshman quarterback Eric Barriere won his first start as an Eagle, but he certainly had some help.
The No. 19/21 Eastern Washington University football team had huge contributions by its defense, punter Jordan Dascalo and running back Sam McPherson as the Eagles beat North Dakota Saturday (Nov. 11) 21-14 in a Big Sky Conference showdowns at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D.
Eastern scored all 21 of its points in the first half, and held on to clinch the school's 11th-straight winning season – equaling the most in EWU's 109-year football history. With several players already out with injuries, two others joined the ranks of those not on the trip when they were suspended for violation of team rules.
"It's a testament to these players for having a ton of grit," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best, whose team kept alive its playoff hopes heading into next week's regular season finale at home versus Portland State. "We haven't been given a full deck, but Eagle Nation knows our players keep finding a way. That's because of who they are – they believe in the system, they believe in themselves and they believe in each other. I'm very proud of our 60 players we brought on the trip, and our focus will be on Portland State after we savor this one tonight."
Barriere was filling in for suspended starter Gage Gubrud, and finished the game with 130 passing yards and 55 on the ground. Eastern finished with a 376-366 edge in total offense, including a 191-29 advantage in the second quarter when EWU out-scored UND 14-0. Eastern forced two turnovers and had none itself, giving the Eagles a 41-0 record since 2010 when winning the turnover battle.
Dascalo punted seven times for a 52.7 average, but none were bigger than his last – a 67-yarder that was downed at the UND 3-yard line with 2:47 to play. The Fighting Hawks picked up just one turnover before turning the ball over on downs, thus enabling EWU to run out the clock with kneel-downs.
McPherson contributed to all three EWU touchdowns and had 157 total yards, including a career-high 118 rushing, a TD pass and a scoring reception. He set-up EWU's third and final touchdown of the day late in the first half with a career-long 55-yard rush, but he was injured on the play and didn't return.
Defensively, the Eagles held UND to a net 103 yards rushing and an average of 3.3 per rush. Sophomore Jack Sendelbach, starting in place of suspended middle linebacker Kurt Calhoun, had a team-high 11 tackles and a key second-half fumble recovery.
The Eagles are one of a handful of league teams fighting not only for the league title, but berths in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs which begin on Nov. 25. The Eagles and Fighting Hawks are the defending league champions after both were 8-0 in the league a year ago.
Records . . .
* Now 6-4 for the season and 5-2 in the Big Sky Conference, the Eagles snapped a two-game losing streak with the win.
* Injuries plagued the Fighting Hawks this season, and they ended their season 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big Sky. A year ago, both Eastern and North Dakota went undefeated to share the Big Sky Conference football title and were picked to finish 1-2 this year as well,
What It Means . . .
* The Eagles kept alive its postseason hopes, and will still be doing lots of scoreboard watching the rest of today and in the final week of the regular season. The victory clinched Eastern's 20th winning season in the last 22 years (1996-2017), including a current string of 11-straight (2007-17) and another stretch of seven straight (1999-2005). The last time Eastern had that many winning seasons in a row came 75 years earlier in the Red Reese era when Eastern had a string of 11-straight winning seasons from 1931-1941.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern closes the regular season with Senior Day at Roos Field on Nov. 18 versus Portland State, with the FCS Playoffs beginning the following weekend on Nov. 25.
Keys to Game . . .
* As replacements for suspended starters, redshirt quarterback Eric Barriere and sophomore linebacker Jack Sendelbach came up big. Barriere had 185 yards of total offense and scored once on the ground and had a touchdown pass. Sendelbach, making the fourth start of his career, finished with 11 tackles and recovered a key fumble with 13:21 left in the game at the EWU 1-yard line and the Eagles clinging to a 21-7 lead. Barriere helped Eastern to a turnoverless game, but had to recover his own fumble late in the game that was followed by a key 67-yard punt by Jordan Dascalo that was downed at the UND 3-yard line. Had Barriere not recovered the fumble, UND would have taken over at the EWU 31 trailing just 21-14.
Turning Point . . .
* Ahead 14-7 late in the first half, Sam McPherson ran 55 yards to set-up a touchdown that gave Eastern a two-touchdown lead. Eastern's defense held onto the lead in the second half, forcing a pair of UND turnovers. Junior cornerback Nzuzi Webster forced a fumble that was recovered by sophomore linebacker Jack Sendelbach with 13:21 left in the game, and then junior cornerback Josh Lewis had an interception with 10:56 to play.
Top Performers . . .
* In his first career start, redshirt freshman quarterback Eric Barriere completed 13-of-23 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 15 times for 55 yards. He was sacked only once and had no turnovers. He rushed for a pair of first downs, and passed for another eight. By contrast, Vernon Adams Jr. – a former Eagle who Barriere draws comparisons to – had 75 yards passing (7-of-12) and 62 rushing (five carries) in his starting debut in 2012 at Weber State in a 32-26 victory. Adams missed most of the second half with cramping, and rushed for five first downs and passed for four.
* Junior running back Sam McPherson averaged 13.1 yards each time he touched the ball, and helped account for two touchdowns and set-up a third. He had his first 100-yard rushing performance with 118 yards on eight carries, including a 55-yard touchdown run that set-up a TD. Prior to that, he had a 2-yard touchdown pass to Talolo Limu-Jones and had a 14-yard TD reception. He finished with a team-high three catches for 37 yards despite missing the second half with an injury.
* Sophomore linebacker Jack Sendelbach had 11 tackles, including half-sack, and had a fourth-quarter fumble recovery at the EWU 1-yard line. He came two tackles from his career high of 13 tackles against North Dakota State earlier this season. The 103 rushing yards EWU surrendered was its second-best performance of the season, ranking only behind the 26 Fordham had.
* Sophomore safety Tysen Prunty had nine tackles and junior end Keenan Williams was credited with 1 1/2 of EWU's four sacks on the day.
* Senior punter Jordan Dascalo punted seven times for a 52.7 average with two downed inside the North Dakota 20-yard line. His 67-yarder with 2:47 left in the game was downed at the UND 3-yard line, and equaled the longest of his career to rank sixth in school history. The average field position for North Dakota after his punts was the 24-yard line.
Key Stats . . .
* EWU is now 41-0 since 2010 when they've won the turnover battle, 18-5 when they've been tied and 18-22 when they've lost. That's a collective record of 77-27 (74 percent), with 21 of those 27 losses (78 percent) coming in games EWU has lost the turnover battle and 53 percent of EWU's wins coming when they've won the turnover battle (77 percent when including ties). In the last nine-plus seasons, the Eagles are now 50-1 when they've won the turnover battle, 21-6 when they've been tied and 20-29 when they've lost (total of 91-36). The last time EWU lost when it won the turnover battle came in the 2009 FCS Playoffs at Stephen F. Austin when EWU had two miscues and forced four in the 44-33 loss.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Although they had their 12-game Big Sky winning streak come to a close at Southern Utah on Oct. 21 and fell to North Dakota on Nov. 4, the Eagles have won 45 of their last 52 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. Eastern has won 35 of its last 41 league games, with the other losses coming against Montana and Portland State in 2015 and Northern Arizona in both 2015 and 2014. Including non-conference victories (two versus MSU and one against Cal Poly) and a playoff win (Montana), the Eagles have won 39 of their last 45 versus conference foes, and are 49-7 since the 0-2 start in 2011. Including three wins at the end of the 2009 season, Eastern has a 55-11 record in league games since then. What's perhaps most impressive is Eastern's ability to consistently win on the road. Until losing at Southern Utah, the Eagles had won its previous road game versus all 13 other league members, as well a 2012 road victory at Idaho, which will join the league next year.
Notables . . .
* Since 2004, EWU has lost just seven regular season games in November (Weber State in 2017; NAU, Portland State and Montana in 2015; Sac State and Weber State in 2006; and Cal Poly in 2005), with an overall record of 31-7. In November and beyond since 2004, the Eagles are now 44-15, including a 13-8 record in the FCS Playoffs. Since 2010, Eastern is 29-8 overall in November and beyond, with the lone setbacks coming in 2017 to Weber State; 2016 to Youngstown State in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs; 2015 to Portland State, Montana and Northern Arizona; 2014 to Illinois State in the playoff quarterfinals; 2013 to Towson in the playoff semifinals; and 2012 to Sam Houston State in the playoff semifinals. Until losing to Northern Arizona on Nov. 7, 2015, Eastern had won its last 19 regular season games in November, dating back to a 15-13 loss to Sacramento State on Nov. 1, 2008.
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Win: "We faced a hard-fought contest against a North Dakota team which gave everything they had in their final game. It was a struggle for us offensively in the second half without question. Our defense came up with some huge plays and gave us an advantage in turnover margin. We didn't give one up on offense which is huge. The defense came up large that last 30 minutes and the entire game. When you have a defense that holds a team to seven points in each half – especially on the road against a run-first offense -- that says a lot about Jeff Schmedding and his defensive staff. They played with a ton of guts. We came with 60 players, and everybody emptied their tank today."
On Overcoming Suspensions: "The players came back Tuesday ready to work after the news that was delivered on Sunday. They didn't hesitate for a second. They were ready to work and they were eager to work. They were behind Eric and the players who filled the linebacker position. We had a lot of energy this week, probably more than most week 10 games I've been around in the past. That was good, and maybe it was fueled by the opportunity some of those other guys received."
On Jordan Dascalo: "Jordan might have made the play of the game when that ball was downed inside the 5-yard line. It's hard enough to do that in the second quarter, let alone the fourth quarter when it is 21-14. He put them 95 yards away from having to score a touchdown and came up huge. He did what he was coached to do, and he did it really well."
On Eric Barriere: "I'm proud of him – he has a huge smile, and it's just as big today as it was on Tuesday. You don't know what moment he's in because he's always the same way. He has an uncanny ability to stay even-keel in the heat of the moment, and that's something that can be taken away from him. He was a grinder today. It didn't all work out perfect, but he's electric when the ball is in his hands. I'm excited about his performance, but most of all how he managed the game. He had no turnovers and didn't force very many balls. I can't be prouder – I love that kid."
On Road Success: "It was awesome. It's fun to see our players be successful on the road, absolutely."