THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: EWU’s ceiling, and playing the Vandals

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MARK NELKE/Press Eastern Washington football coach Aaron Best chats with a reporter at last week's Big Sky Football Kickoff in Spokane.

Lost in the news of Gage Gubrud’s season-ending injury during the middle of last season was brief reply made by Eastern Washington football coach Aaron Best.

Gubrud suffered a toe injury in the Eagles’ fifth game, a 34-17 victory at Montana State that upped EWU’s record to 4-1.

Backup Eric Barriere, a sophomore, guided Eastern to a 55-17 rout of visiting Southern Utah the following week. But a week later, Barriere and the Eagles were stymied in a 14-6 loss at Weber State — the first time since 2008 that EWU didn’t score a touchdown.

At that point, there was still hope Gubrud, a top-flight passer and one of the top quarterbacks in FCS, would eventually return.

But following a bye week, Barriere was at the controls as Eastern cruised to a 38-14 victory over visiting Idaho.

After that game, Best announced that Gubrud’s injury would sideline him for the rest of the season.

Barriere, more of a runner than a passer, was now officially handed the keys to the Eagles’ offense.

In the postgame news conference, Best was asked if replacing Gubrud with Barriere might limit the ceiling of potential the Eagles were capable of reaching.

“Might give us more of a ceiling,” Best said.

AS IT turned out, Best was right.

The job all his now, Barriere led Eastern to victories in their next five games — only one of them close — before EWU lost 38-24 to North Dakota State in the FCS national title game.

What did Best know?

“You have an intuition,” Best said last week, at the Big Sky Football Kickoff in Spokane. “He’s different than Gage. Gage has experience, he’s got more leadership … some things that you see and I see. But you don’t see the guy that doesn’t play on Saturday. They’re just difference talents; some guys just have different skill sets. Early on, that limited some of our play-calling because we needed to curtail our game plan to Eric. … the standard doesn’t deviate, but the treatment does.”

Best said of EWU’s loss at Weber, “that hurt, that stung. I’m not saying that made us a national runner-up … we got better in a weird way from a step back.”


Eastern coaches told Barriere needed to be more efficient — be aggressive, but don’t turn the ball over as much.

“Be you, but be calculated when you do it,” Best explained. “You’ve got players around, you get the ball to them. They’ll make you look pretty, and you’ll look pretty sometimes too.”

GUBRUD, AS it turned out, landed at Washington State this year as a grad transfer, battling for the Cougars’ starting QB job.

Any hard feelings from Cheney?

Not at all, Best said.

“I text him every once in a while … ‘good luck, I’m rooting for you,’” Best said. “I’m rooting for him. Don’t know where the dust is going to settle. But I hope he ends up doing the Vernon Adams (who went on to shine at Oregon as a grad transfer); I hope he ends up being a linchpin for that offense … I hope he creates waves down there nationally. That’s good for us.

“Everybody says, ‘Why do you root for a guy that left your nest?’ It’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t he?’ They’re going to mention Eastern. If we can promote those guys, and give them another opportunity, no matter what it is, so be it. Then the next guy’s got to step up.

“But I’m rooting for him. We’re all rooting for him. Great kid.”

EASTERN AND Idaho will meet Sept. 21 in a nonconference game in Moscow, after the two teams were not scheduled to meet in conference play this season.

Best on his role in scheduling the game:

“I think you always have to try to preserve rivalries,” he said. “Our proximity just screams, ‘Play each other.’ … we can only control the nonleague, to a certain degree. So when the league tells you who you’re playing, you’ve got to get creative. My creativity spawns from … the first two (rivals) that come to mind are Idaho and Montana. Let’s build Idaho back to where it was, which was well before I got there (Big Sky). And Montana has taken on a life of its own since the mid-2000s, where it’s been really good football, really good crowds, really high-intense games. So let’s do that.

“So if we’ve got a spot, I’m always going to put (Idaho) coach (Paul) Petrino on speed dial and say, ‘What do you think?’ If that means traveling, that means traveling. Because at the end of the day, let’s play.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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