McFeely: Gubrud, Eagles just not the same this time around

CHENEY, Wash. — The best sign made by a tailgating North Dakota State football fan in Cheney on Saturday, Sept. 9, was a reference to the 2010 quarterfinal playoff game won by Eastern Washington on a controversial fumble call by Bison quarterback Brock Jensen.

The sign read:

#NOTAFUMBLE

#NEVERFORGET

#12-11-2010

Bison fans have long memories, apparently, and wanted revenge for a game that happened seven years ago.

They got it, although in the end it was probably a little unfulfilling.

The expectation was that Saturday’s FCS Division I football game between NDSU and Eastern Washington was going to be clash of titans. The expectation was that it was going to match the excitement of the first two times the teams met — that time in 2010 and last year’s overtime thriller in Fargo. The expectation was that it was going to be a battle of a high-flying offense and a lock-down defense.

It was none of those things. It wasn’t even close to any of those things. It was just plain ugly for the home team.

The Bison destroyed the Eagles the old-fashioned way, with a punishing ground game and a voracious defense to take a 40-13 victory at Roos Field. Eastern Washington was roadkill the second week in a row, having lost its opener 56-10 at Texas Tech. The Eagles of new head coach Aaron Best have been outscored 96-23.

“Make no bones about it: That is a very, very good outfit that we faced today. Home or away,” Best said. “It’s obviously difficult when you’re facing teams that are very good and the points are really low. That’s not the team we are going to be. It’s just a matter of time until we get on track.”

It better be quick. If the natives were restless in Cheney after a Big 12 team rolled the Eagles — and they were — they’re going to positively convulsive after this performance. Beau Baldwin is gone and so, apparently, is the greatest show on red turf.

This isn’t the Eastern Washington team that struck fear in the hearts of FCS opponents since it won a national championship in 2010. It certainly isn’t the team that lit up the Bison defense for 50 points and 556 yards a year ago when quarterback Gage Gubrud looked like Brett Favre in his prime.

This time the Bison defense pressured Gubrud relentlessly and didn’t, to use the words of NDSU safety Robbie Grimsley, “freak out” when the mobile quarterback scrambled out of the pocket. The Bison stayed at home and made life miserable for the Gubrud, who finished 10 of 30 for an anemic 134 yards, 50 of which came on one first-half completion. He was also intercepted twice by Grimsley, who could’ve had two more. Gubrud did not throw a TD.

The question about the Eagles was how much they’d missed their three outstanding receivers from a year — Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill. The answer is a lot.

Gubrud delivered several strikes to receivers who just plain dropped them. But he was also uncharacteristically inaccurate, although it’s difficult to complete passes with Bison defensive linemen in your facemask. It’s obvious, though, that Nic Sblendorio, Stu Stiles and Terence Grady are having a tough time filling big shoes.

“We don’t have three NFL receivers on our offense, but we still have good receivers and they can still do some stuff,” Gubrud said. “I am not losing any confidence in those guys. They are not losing any confidence in their game.They are going to go out there and make plays. I know that and I’m really looking forward to next week.”

Gubrud was unstoppable last year, throwing for an FCS-record 5,160 yards. He had 48 TD passes. He was also Eastern’s leading rusher with 606 yards.

Gubrud’s stats this season are slightly behind that pace. In two games, he’s thrown for 341 yards and one touchdown. The Eagles are averaging 11.5 points a game, after averaging 42.3 last year.

“It speaks volumes about the guys that we had,” Best said. “We are still figuring out who we are as an offense.”

The Eagles better figure it out fast, because it’s clear they are miles behind where they were a year ago. Gubrud said there’s no reason to panic.

“I have more confidence than ever because I know this team is great and it’s going to be great. It is going to take time because great things don’t happen overnight,” he said. “I do think that the fans are going to be worried, but I’m really excited for our team because we’ve never faced something like this. We’ve never had what you could call two blowout losses and we’re 0-2 right now. I’m really excited to see how our team is going to respond because this is what how the best teams are made.”