Big-play QBs square off in Sac. St-EWU

Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud (8) looks to pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against the Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

(STATS) – Eastern Washington fans have grown accustomed to Gage Gubrud putting up ridiculous numbers and last week was no different. He racked up more yards of total offense than anyone else in the FCS this season in rallying the Eagles to an improbable win in their conference opener.

It was yet another sensational performance but not enough to be named the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Week.

Nope, that honor went to Sacramento State’s Kevin Thompson.

The two quarterbacks who accounted for 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards of total offense last weekend will be on the same field Saturday when ninth-ranked Eastern Washington hosts the surprising Hornets.

Gubrud was in the final three in voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award but opened this year with a couple of very unGubrud-like performances. Last season’s leader in passing yards at 368.6 per game totaled 341 with a touchdown and three interceptions while completing 50 percent of his passes as EWU stumbled to an 0-2 start. The Eagles combined for 23 points after ranking third in the FCS in scoring a year ago at 42.4 per game.

The last two weeks, however, have been more of what Eastern Washington fans have come to expect from Gubrud and the high-powered Eagles, with the QB completing nearly 70 percent of his throws for 948 yards and seven TDs.

“You think maybe he was Clark Kent after the first two games – he found a phone booth and he changed clothes,” first-year EWU coach Aaron Best said. “But he didn’t do that. Those were two quality opponents and we were in our first two games of our new offensive coaching staff, so we were still getting familiar with each other. He was the same player, but the numbers were just different.”

His second-half numbers alone last week were on par with his typical production from a year ago.

Gubrud threw for 331 yards and four touchdowns in the final two quarters to lead EWU to 42 second-half points and a 48-41 win at Montana. He finished with 549 passing yards and 560 total yards to eclipse school records he had set a year ago.

“The numbers were a little more in our favor this week,” Best said. “Just because it’s not an Eastern record in subsequent weeks doesn’t mean he’s not exceeding expectations. We’ve been spoiled by our riches in that respect.”

While gaudy offensive numbers have been the norm at Eastern Washington, that hasn’t been the case at Sacramento State.

The Hornets had the fewest TDs in the FCS’ highest-scoring conference last year and have won just two games in each of the past two seasons. They’ve already matched that win total this year with a pair of 50-point outbursts.

Thompson put up Gubrud-like numbers in those wins. First, he passed for 320 yards and five touchdowns against Incarnate Word. Last Saturday against a Southern Utah team which had just upset Northern Iowa, the UNLV transfer threw for 253 yards and three TDs while running for 149 – the school record for a QB – and another four scores in a 54-27 win. The seven total TDs tied the school record.

“The stats are nice,” Thompson said, “but it’s more important that we got the W and that’s all I care about.”

While it is just one win, the way the Hornets won has put the rest of the Big Sky on notice.

Picked to finish 12th in the 13-team Big Sky in both the coaches’ and media preseason polls, Sacramento State dominated the line in annihilating a Thunderbirds team which held then-No. 21 UNI to negative-18 yards on 28 rushing attempts. The Hornets’ churned out 333 rushing yards – their most since 2012.

“Make no bones about it – Sacramento State is for real,” Best said. “Scoring (54) points against anybody, much less Southern Utah, says a ton. It helps when you have a dual-threat quarterback willing to pack it or throw it.”

The Hornets’ defense is also opening some eyes. Only South Florida, the 18th-ranked team in the FBS, has more interceptions across all divisions than Sacramento State’s 10, with Dre Terrell picking off four passes. The interceptions are a byproduct of the defensive line which is routinely putting pressure on the quarterback, forcing him to make bad throws. The Hornets’ 15 sacks are tied with Eastern Washington for the most in the FCS.

“They’re jumping some routes maybe they didn’t jump last year,” Best said of Sacramento State’s secondary. “They’re taking some chances and those chances have paid off. When they are in man-to-man coverage, they have some guys that can go get the ball that you would think they’re the receiver and not the defensive back.”

Although the Eagles have been able to get to the quarterback regularly, it hasn’t led to the same success in terms of pass coverage. They allowed Montana to throw for 358 yards last week and only have one interception on the season.

Corralling the shifty Thompson also doesn’t figure to be easy as Sacramento State has allowed just two sacks in their last three games.

“Their offensive line is much improved, and they are a well-coached team,” Best said. “They were fairly young last year if I remember right, so now they are less greener and more meaner. They play with high energy and have talent, and those are things we need to be aware of.”