It was the reason senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp returned to Eastern Washington University for his senior season, and now he and his Eagle teammates can focus on winning a bigger prize.
Third-ranked Eastern wrapped up its ninth Big Sky Conference title and extended its winning streak to nine games with a 35-28 victory over nemesis Portland State Friday night (Nov. 18) at Providence Park in Portland, Ore. In the process, the Eagles equaled its best regular season finish in 108 years of football and finished with its second unbeaten Big Sky season in 30 years in the conference.
"Our players worked so hard to overcome certain things in terms of youth, finding ways to be ready and our challenging schedule," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "We could have been a really good team, and results may still not have gone our way in the first three or four games. We found a way to get off to a great start and finish the year undefeated in the conference. That's hard to do."
Eastern battled back from deficits to knot the score at 14, 21 and 28, then took a 35-28 lead with 8:19 to play in the game on a Kendrick Bourne 10-yard pass from Gage Gubrud. Eastern's defense then stopped PSU on downs with 1:56 to play and was able to run out the clock.
Senior Shaq Hill caught seven passes for 124 yards and a touchdown, with Gubrud finishing with 346 yards of total offense. Senior Samson Ebukam had a pair of sacks, including one on third down on PSU's final possession. Gubrud, Ebukam and Bourne are all from the Portland area.
"It was great for the defense to finish the comeback off, and great for the offense to get one more needed first down to clinch it," said Baldwin. "At times, things weren't perfect today – that's part of what I love about football and part of what I love about sports . . . the imperfections. I love the grind and going through moments that aren't perfect and seeing how our players and coaches respond. That was what tonight was about. Our guys were able to respond in all three facets and help us win that game."
Eastern, 10-1 overall (.902 winning percentage) and a perfect 8-0 in the Big Sky, also wrapped up its 12th NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoff berth in school history. The Eagles have most likely secured a top two seed, which would give them home-field advantage leading up to the FCS Championship game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas (9 a.m. Pacific time on ESPN2). Eastern will open the playoffs at home in the second round on Dec. 3, while 16 of the 24 teams in the tournament will play in the first round on Nov. 26.
Playoff pairings will be released Sunday at 8 a.m. Pacific time on ESPNU. In last week's rankings released by the selection committee, EWU was No. 1 behind North Dakota State. The Bison, the five-time defending FCS champions, handed EWU its only loss of the season by a 50-44 score in overtime on Sept. 10 in Fargo, N.D.
Kupp went over 6,000 receiving yards and 400 receptions in his legendary career against PSU, catching six passes for 67 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. The injury came on his 38-yard catch during EWU's game-tying 13-play, 65-yard scoring drive to start the second half and knot the game at 14.
Although he was already a bonafide professional prospect following his junior season when the Eagles finished just 6-5, he returned with the goal of competing for Big Sky and national titles. He enters the playoffs with FCS records of 68 receiving touchdowns, 6,061 yards and 402 receptions.
The injury to Kupp was only the tip of the injury iceberg for the Eagles. Senior linebacker Miquiyah Zamora (hamstring) missed most of the game, and EWU was already playing without a trio of injured starters – guard Matt Meyer (concussion), running back Jabari Wilson (hip/rib contusion) and rover J.J. Njoku (knee).