With many of Eastern Washington’s offensive starters already done for the day, coaches gave Dennis Merritt one more shot to earn his first 100-yard game.
Granting such opportunities is something Eagles coach Aaron Best said he saw his predecessor Beau Baldwin do. With Merritt at 94 yards, the senior running back re-entered the backfield late in the third quarter with the seventh-ranked Eagles of the FCS leading Central Washington of Division II by 46 points.
“My coaches put me in and said, ‘You got one shot to get over 100,’ ” Merritt said. “I didn’t know how many I was at, and I said, ‘All right, this is it.’ ”
Merritt gained 26 yards on the carry, his second longest of the game, and finished with a career-high 120 yards on 10 carries, leading a high-powered Eastern offense in a 63-14 victory over the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon at Roos Field.
“Those guys did a great job up front,” Merritt said of the offensive linemen. “The run reads were very simple for me; I was on the same track on every single run. Everything felt like it was gonna bust through.”
Many times, he and his teammates did: The Eagles ran 48 times for 323 yards – their most since a 378-yard effort against Portland State in 2018 – and four touchdowns. Freshman Justice Jackson carried 11 times for 100 yards and a score; sophomore Micah Smith added 44 yards on 10 carries.
The balance was by design, as the Eagles rotated in running backs versus an overmatched Wildcats defense, against which senior quarterback Eric Barriere completed 20 of 31 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns.
But the star of the day was Merritt, a 2015 high school graduate who is now in his seventh year at Eastern, having been granted extra seasons due to an injury in 2019 and a pandemic in 2020.
“Whether it’s in practice or games, (Merritt) knows one speed,” Best said. “It’s always good to have to bring him back instead of revving him up. He played really well, and he’s the guy we’re gonna lean on right now without Tamarick (Pierce) in the mix, being the senior, having the most experience in that (running back) room.”
Merritt has 1,039 yards in his career at Eastern on 171 carries, good for an average of 6.1 yards per rush.
He also has 329 more yards on 23 career receptions.
“I think we were just executing at a high level,” Merritt said. “Everybody knows what the standard here is offensively for Eastern, and I think we did a pretty good job today.”
Barriere opened the scoring with a 6-yard rushing score, followed immediately by a 2-yard sneak on the point after by Gunner Talkington, to give the Eagles an 8-0 lead on their opening drive. Central immediately answered with a touchdown, but from then on the Eagles dominated.
Junior receiver Andrew Boston scored on a 16-yard end-around run, Seth Harrison kicked a 35-yard field goal, and Merritt scored twice in the second quarter as Eastern opened up a 32-7 lead.
On the Wildcats’ drive that followed, Eagles end Mitchell Johnson pressured quarterback JJ Lemming, who threw behind his receiver and right to Ty Graham. The senior linebacker ran 43 yards the other way untouched for his first touchdown with the Eagles.
It mirrored a play last spring, when Graham applied the pressure that led to a Johnson pick-six against Cal Poly.
“We feed off the momentum of our offense, which is good,” said junior linebacker Cale Lindsay, who started alongside Graham in place of senior Jack Sendelbach. “With our defense, we’re always ready to go out there because our offense can score in a couple seconds.
“I think just having that edge, or that fire always built up that whole time on the sidelines, is good.”
On Eastern’s next offensive possession after Graham’s touchdown, Freddie Roberson took a screen pass 16 yards to the goal line but lost control of the football. Senior center Conner Crist fell on the ball in the end zone and got credit for the touchdown, extending the Eagles lead to 46-7.
“I think that’s the second time ever in the history since I’ve been here since 1996 that an offensive lineman scored a touchdown,” Best said. “It’s an offensive lineman’s dream. … Him traveling that far, into the end zone off a tunnel screen to the boundary, just speaks volumes of how they’re coached.”
Eastern set a program record with 46 points before halftime, and the Eagles’ 63 points were the 11th most they’ve scored in a single game.
They extended their home winning streak to 18 games.
The Eagles play at Western Illinois on Saturday to wrap up their nonconference schedule.