A season that began with uncertainty ended with a resounding thud that echoed through the Fargodome.
A relatively down and inexperienced North Dakota State team ran over EWU in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs on Saturday in Fargo, North Dakota, a 42-20 result boosted by 422 Bison rushing yards.
The Eagles’ rare, abbreviated spring football campaign hit a spectrum of circumstances, emotions and results, but the Eagles were still able to carve a postseason berth.
Playing in a Big Sky Conference that saw five of the league’s 13 teams opt out the six-game regular season, and another member – Cal Poly – drop out after three games, EWU (5-2) finished second behind four-time defending champion Weber State (6-1).
More than 30 FCS teams around the country didn’t pursue a spring season, including Montana, Montana State and Sacramento State, three programs that reached the 2019 playoffs.
EWU navigated local restrictions, constant coronavirus testing, injuries and losses to the NCAA transfer portal to finish with a winning record for the 14th straight season.
“We need some time off physically and mentally. This has been such an abnormal season in a lot of different ways,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said on Saturday. “In a lot of good ways but a lot of weird, odd and challenging ways too.”
When Best missed EWU’s season opener at Idaho after a positive coronavirus test, it set the tone for perhaps the strangest, most unpredictable season in the Cheney school’s history.
But EWU still led the nation in total offense (562 yards per game) after the regular season. Senior All-American quarterback Eric Barriere (2,439 passing yards, 19 touchdowns) put himself in contention to win the Walter Payton Award and several otherwise inexperienced players gained experience in a coronavirus-altered year that won’t count against their eligibility.
The Eagles, who will get a four-month break before the beginning of a standard fall season, have questions surrounding the program heading into their short off-season.
Will Barriere return?: Barriere eclipsed 10,000 total career yards on Saturday and has 93 touchdowns.
He helped the Eagles reach the 2018 FCS national title game, earned All-American status in 2019 and may win the top FCS offensive honor – the Walter Payton Award – next month.
Barriere can return to Cheney for a sixth season, or can decide to pursue an undrafted free-agent NFL contract or join the throng of ex-EWU greats in the Canadian Football League.
Or will Barriere go the Vernon Adams and Gage Gubrud route and use their final year of eligibility at the FBS level?
Barriere was mum on Saturday when asked if he planned to return to EWU.
Best was asked the same question about Barriere and said the two would talk about his future in the coming days.
“Me and coach Best talked about it, and I’ll say the same thing he did,” Barriere said with a smile. “And that’s how it is.”
Will most seniors return?: Team captains and Jack Sendelbach (linebacker), Calin Criner (safety), Tristen Taylor (offensive tackle) and Tamarick Pierce (running back) and Ty Graham (linebacker) have said they plan to return this fall.
Now it appears the Eagles’ roster will be stocked with sixth-year – and even some seventh-year – seniors in the fall.
Criner told reporters on Saturday that he expects most seniors to return but that some may leave.
Veteran defensive back and special teams coverage man Dean Sise posted on Twitter that he won’t return this fall.
Will EWU shop the transfer portal? EWU’s defense took a hit when starting defensive tackle Kieth Moore hit the transfer portal in the winter and linebacker Chris Ojoh and defensive back Ira Branch left the team and entered the portal during the spring season.
The Eagles have been a program that prides itself on developing high school talent while adding occasional transfers from FBS schools, but with all the movement around the country, EWU could quickly fill some holes in their short off-season by bringing in more transfers.
EWU’s defense had a few players who started their college career elsewhere, including Graham (Idaho), safety Eli Doyle (Arizona State), defensive end Jusstis Warren (Washington) and Sise (Air Force).
If Barriere or a talent like Big Sky leading receiver Talolo Limu-Jones take their talents elsewhere in the off-season, EWU will need to quickly replace those important commodities on offense, too.
Will EWU improve its defensive line? For the second straight season, EWU’s defensive front was physically outmatched most games and had trouble applying pressure on quarterbacks.
A lack of size and experience on the interior and departures and injuries at linebacker hurt the Eagles, who were bulldozed by North Dakota State’s patchwork offensive front, which still paved the way for 422 rushing yards despite a series of injuries.
In EWU’s two games before the NDSU loss, its defense surrendered nearly 500 combined rushing yards.
The Eagles totaled 13 sacks in seven games, but six came against an undermanned Cal Poly team that was outscored 169-58 in its three games before bowing out the remainder of its schedule.
“We kind of have to go back to the drawing board to determine what is best for us. We’ll look and see what we have injury-wise and see how the next few calendar months go,” Best said.