The Eastern Washington University football team is in an unfamiliar position, but is feeling confident.
After receiving first-round byes in the previous five appearances in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, the Eagles are in a wait-and-see mode following a dominant 59-33 Big Sky Conference victory over Portland State Saturday (Nov. 18) to end the 2017 regular season.
Senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio nearly broke a school record for receiving yards as Eastern closed the season 7-4 overall and in a tie for third in the Big Sky Conference with a 6-2 record. It's the 11th-straight season the Eagles have finished 5-3 or better in the Big Sky. The Eagles had already secured its record 11th-straight winning season and 20th in the last 22 years.
The Eagles took a big step toward its 13th playoff berth in school history on a day in which 14 Eagle seniors were honored in pre-game ceremonies. Eastern received positives results from throughout the nation as well, including a 48-20 victory by Southern Utah over Northern Arizona and a 35-7 victory by Weber State against Idaho State. The Thunderbirds and Wildcats are the only teams EWU lost to during the league season and shared the league title.
"This was a statement – that's what I will say," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best. "It was a statement. We played really well in all three phases, and really put it together after the first 30 minutes. That was a dominant performance in all three phases and I'm proud of our team."
Sblendorio finished with nine catches for 273 yards and a pair of touchdowns, coming just two yards from the EWU record of 275 set by Cooper Kupp (now of the Los Angeles Rams) in 2015 at Northern Colorado. Kupp also had 274 yards versus UC Davis in his senior season in 2016 for the Roos Field record.
Eastern finished with 728 to rank as the third-most in school history, ranking only behind the 740 at home versus Rocky Mountain and 743 on the road at Idaho State in 2013. Eastern quarterback Gage Gubrud passed for 445 yards and four scores, and running back Antoine Custer Jr. had a career-high 177 yards rushing with three more scores. Eastern's 59 points was a season high and the 14th-most in school history.
Eastern will find out its playoff fate at 8 a.m. Pacific time on Sunday (Nov. 19) when the FCS Playoffs Selection Show airs on ESPNU. The Eagles are hoping for one of 14 at-large berths in the 24-team field, with 10 teams receiving automatic qualification as conference champions.
"We'll wait it out, but we put ourselves in a position to hear our name," added Best. "Our team has done a good job through 11 games and had a lot of fun. To end on this note is awesome, and hopefully we'll get a plus-one."