By Robert H Kelly
Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved
FRISCO, TEXAS (January 4, 2019) With the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship less than 24 hours away, Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best sat down with the press on Friday, Janaury 4 and talked about the upcoming game against North Dakota State. He was joined by sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere, senior center Spencer Blackburn and sophomore cornerback Josh Lewis.
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by head coach Aaron Best. And student-athletes are Spencer Blackburn, Josh Lewis and Eric Barriere.
COACH BEST: I want to say thank you. Hospitality has been awesome. Obviously there's two teams playing to get to earn the opportunity, not deserve the opportunity, to play in this game. Very proud of the 103 people we brought down to Frisco with us. From January on they've worked extremely hard to get to this point, one game at a time. We're going to approach this game no different.
We've got a different cast of characters in game 15 than we did in game 1. But they all are symbolic of our message in terms of being the Eastern kind of guy -- overachieving in all elements whether it be in the classroom, on the field, in the weight room and in their household.
So extremely proud of this bunch, and we look forward to three hours of good football against a great football team in North Dakota State.
Q. Is this going to feel like a true road game? It's the FCS title game, but considering all the green and gold -- I'm sure you've seen it around town, like, restaurants, kind of, welcome Bison. Obviously this is your time too. But are you kind of expecting kind of an away-game atmosphere?
ERIC BARRIERE: Yes, because we know they've been here, done that. We know the Bison fans travel a lot. And we just gotta go out there and play our game because at the end of the day it's going to be an away game in a way. But it's just a football game, so we've just got to go out there and play.
JOSH LEWIS: Kind of just going off what Eric said, it's 11 on 11 out there, so --
SPENCER BLACKBURN: I would kind of agree with that. I mean yes and no. They have to travel as well. They have to go through the same hoops as we have to go through to get here and play in a game that's not actually at your own stadium. I would say it's a home game atmosphere for them but it's not necessarily a home game as well.
Q. Eric, what's made you so successful coming into this offense and already putting up the numbers that you have?
ERIC BARRIERE: Just doing the little things, just watching extra film, just talking to my coaches, just trying to do what I can to get better in my game because I thought earlier on I had some flaws. And I'm just trying to get better each and every day.
Q. You guys missed out on the FCS playoffs last year; that was kind of your message leading into this year, getting back and leaving no doubt. But you're here now. Do you guys still carry that identity now that you're here or are you carrying yourselves any differently?
SPENCER BLACKBURN: I would say we're definitely going with that same mantra. You've got to finish this season. The season is not complete. Maybe there's only two teams left. But it's still open for grabs.
JOSH LEWIS: I think we still have that leave-no-doubt mentality. Again, going off what Spencer said, we have done a lot of work to get here, but we're not done yet. And so we have a lot of unfinished business left to complete on Saturday.
ERIC BARRIERE: The work is still not complete. We still are going with our motto, leave no doubt, because we started that way in the offseason and we've got to keep it going.
Q. You guys haven't been an underdog in a game for a really long time, but according to the spread you guys are. What is that like?
COACH BEST: We were an underdog in Pullman, weren't we?
Q. An FCS game, you guys haven't been an underdog in an FCS game in quite some time. What is it like for you guys coming in here knowing that?
JOSH LEWIS: I don't think it changes anyone's mindset. We love it. We know that we're the underdog coming in. But between those four walls in the locker room we have belief. We know what we're capable and we're all on the same page. We're a tough team to stop. So underdog or not, we'll give it our all and show everyone what we're about.
SPENCER BLACKBURN: I would agree with that 100 percent. If you're in this situation, everybody is talented, even the top, like, six, eight, it doesn't really matter. Once you hit the playoffs everyone is a talented outfit. So I would say that I would agree with Josh.
ERIC BARRIERE: Yeah, we just -- underdog role, I don't really buy into that because at the end of the day you've still got to go out there and play each other. And both teams, we're both great teams, so I think we'll set it out on the field.
Q. Talking to North Dakota State yesterday, especially their head coach, they said that your style of play now is better suited to play against them and also just at this level, talking about running and then keeping the defense off the field. The defense has had a domino effect from the offense. Would you agree with that statement that your brand of football is better than it was two years ago as far as how it is suited for the postseason and North Dakota State?
SPENCER BLACKBURN: Absolutely. 2016, I think I said it in a couple of interviews ago, that we really banked on outscoring everybody we played. It really didn't come into beating them in every single facet of the football game. And this team that we have this year, we have a defense, we have an offense. And so we're just going to put up as many points as we can but the defense will get stops. And we feel comfortable and we have the ability to run the clock out and run the ball and that's helped us a ton.
ERIC BARRIERE: I think the physicality, what this team brings is very helpful in years past because we could also run the ball, throw the ball, great linemen that can pass block, also run block. And then also we've got a great defense that can stop you in the run and great DBs that can lock you down.
JOSH LEWIS: I think this year we just have true belief in all facets and each other. Offense believes in defense, defense believes in the offense and we all believe in special teams. And I think that's something that I'm not sure we've always had and had full confidence in, and I think definitely, we definitely do this year.
Q. Can you guys talk about how your quality opponents that you guys played this year helped you to get to where you are today?
ERIC BARRIERE: The Big Sky Conference is one of the best conferences in the nation. Like, just week in, week out we'll face a different opponent that will bring a lot to the table. For example, like Weber State, UC Davis, Southern Utah, just all those teams, Montana, all those teams just give us a different feel each and every week and they bring out the best in us.
JOSH LEWIS: The Big Sky Conference is a great conference. You've got teams that run different stuff. One week we're going against UC Davis, a passing attack. One week we're going against against Cal Poly, which rushes 80 times a game or whatever.
But I think it's just a well-rounded conference. And I think all those games have kind of molded us into what we are today and just gotta get us ready for anything that we may face.
SPENCER BLACKBURN: I would completely agree with that. I mean, you don't get three teams in the first-round bye if you have a conference that's not very talented. And I would say that, like Josh was saying, that has developed the team that we have today.
I mean, we had some ups and downs with Weber, but I think that made us more of a complete team. I think it opened a lot of our eyes. And I think it made us much more well-rounded outfit and it's helped us a lot.
Q. Spencer, what does DMGB stand for?
COACH BEST: Doesn't Matter, Get Better.
Q. Eric, how much has Gage taught you and how much have you been able to learn from him through the season?
ERIC BARRIERE: He taught me a lot, even before the season -- just fall camp, spring ball, just watching film, just trying to pick up where he left off and just trying to give me tips defensive-wise, just little things like where they can shade a safety off the hash or something like that. He's helped my game and improved me a lot.
Q. Eric, North Dakota State is no stranger to quarterbacks like you. What's your preparation been like this week preparing for their defense?
ERIC BARRIERE: Same preparation. They've got a great defense. But also know that we've got a great offense, too. So I don't got to do nothing, anything spectacular. I just gotta go out there and play my game.
Q. Eric, when you started this season, you were behind a preseason player of the year candidate and now you're one game away from helping lead this team to a national title. What's the journey been like for you?
ERIC BARRIERE: It's been wild, I'll say. It's had some bumps along the way, but I still think that I have grown a lot just being with the team, just embracing the role because I'm not a talkative guy. And just being in this role just made me be more vocal and a leader and I think it's paying off.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for Coach.
Q. You talked about last week how this is no single player on your team has been to a National Championship, played in a National Championship. How do you see and gauge them, react to coming here, and going through walk-through and all the processes that go along with being here?
COACH BEST: You know, most men look at that as a disadvantage. Sometimes not having your foot in the water is an advantage. When you go to the lake and everybody wants you to jump in, and the person that kind of feels gets scared of the water. Then there's always some person in that party that just jumps in and it's kind of refreshing, because then it's okay to just go do it.
The DNA hasn't changed, won't change. We'll be loose. We're not going to change our stripes at this point. We're who we are facing a team that's been here before.
So one would look at it as an advantage for them, and I don't necessarily agree with that. But it's depending on who you talk to. I don't think there's a disadvantage for us not having been here before. Four guys have been on staff and/or watched the game in 2010 from the stands.
Does that play out? I don't know. Everybody wants to talk about the 2017 game in Cheney against North Dakota State; that has no bearing on the next three hours from 11:00 to 2:00. It's the same mascots, different years that we played. It has no bearing, playing Davis in the regular season versus Davis in the playoffs, things change. And so I don't think there's any correlation to that whatsoever. That's the way we're approaching this one.
Q. Do you feel just point-blank your style of play is better suited now than it was a couple years ago; that you guys have a style of play that plays well in the playoffs and especially against a team like North Dakota State?
COACH BEST: This is what I know: It's easy to indicate that now we've reached a National Championship game with a -- to me, it's not a different style, it's just more of an importance and more of a dedication to the run game.
It's been known for quite some time that we've been successful in the playoffs, just haven't got over that semifinal hump since 2010. So it's easy for someone to sit back and go: They're balanced, that's why they're in this situation. There's many more variables than that. We wanted to be more balanced, but it doesn't mean 50 percent called passes versus 50 percent called runs.
We have RPOs that could dictate one or the other. So some of that is skewed based on the defense we give based on the personnel we see.
But what I do know, some of our best players on offense are our running backs. Some of our most experienced players on offense are our offensive linemen. We're more about yards per carry more than how many times we carry the football. I think we've done a good job through 14 games with a huge challenge in front of us tomorrow. But do I certainly think it helps? Yes. Do I think there needed to be a belief? Yes. Did it take more than just this season? Absolutely. And the challenge going forward, regardless of the outcome tomorrow, is implementing that again and that belief system with the 2019 team when we get there.
Q. What's made Eric so successful stepping into the role he has; he's already up in the top in FCS in a lot of different offensive categories?
COACH BEST: It goes along with the question about you may look at it as a disadvantage after Gage got hurt. We look at it as an opportunity. His skill set is second to none at that position. Doesn't matter whether you like his style of play or not, he's got a long way to go. He's far from refined. But some of that is fun to watch. Not all of it. We've had some turn-your-eye moments over the last nine games.
But those are learning experiences. To be successful, you've got to fail. If you've never failed, you don't know what success is. So Gage has been a great learning tool for him. He, like I said, is as talented if not more talented than any other quarterbacks from a physical standpoint that we've had at Eastern Washington. That says a ton. That's a lot of respect to a lot of the quarterbacks who came before him. Now it's just matching that physical talent with more experience, better decision-making, and leaning on his teammates when he needs to lean on them.
So he'll continue to do that over the next two years. But we like the dynamic aspect he brings to the table and some of the less coaching gets more out of Eric in this situation, then we'll work in the offseason as far as how to fine tune some of that stuff in between his ears.
Q. Your guys' mantra all year has been "Leave no doubt." What's your version of leaving no doubt in this game tomorrow?
COACH BEST: Score more. I mean, two words. Score more. There's probably going to be a play in the game, may not be the only play in the game, that changes momentum in the game. That's the way football goes. That's the way life goes sometimes. And there will be a time in the game, whether it's early, midway through, or late, for one of the ball clubs, be it special teams, offensive or defensive play. And we've got to believe in what we've believed thus far. It started Thanksgiving weekend of last year, really, 2017, when we didn't get an opportunity to showcase our talents in the playoffs.
And so it didn't just start in August. It started well before that prior to this season. So they've taken a great approach. We're not okay to be here. And that to be no matter who the opponent is, as good as North Dakota State has been over the last decade, we're not just okay to be here.
This is not a business trip. This is not a vacation. This is a game against North Dakota State, the number one team in the nation, and we're not okay to be here. We will give them their best shot. They will give us our best shot. And again this is the fourth champion we'll play in the playoffs.
So I don't know about any other teams, but this is the fourth conference champion we'll play. And you have to beat the best to be the best. That's the way we want it in sports. That's why sports are so special.
Q. Any new update on the availability of Jay-Tee; and when he's in your lineup, what difference does he make for your difference?
COACH BEST: First off, any defensive tackle in the country that's defensive player of the year, that's, A, hard to do. B, hard to recognize. Because I think over the season I think he had 34 tackles, four and a half sacks. He's a menace to any offense, number one.
And I applaud the Big Sky coaches for recognizing that, even though his stats may not be as great as Dante Olson from Montana, who I believe is in town as one of the three potential recipients of the Buck Buchanan Award. We won't know the status of Jay-Tee until this evening, later on this evening, so I will get wind of that probably early tomorrow. I may set my alarm very early to get that information before everybody else.
I'm eagerly awaiting the news. I'm not pushing this back for any particular reason. Those that know me and some people are from the Spokane area I'm about as transparent as they come, whether it's our four-year-old or five-year-old at home in Texas or whether it's Jay-Tee Tiuli. So I'm hiding nothing. And so when I get that information, I'll disburse that information to whom we need to disburse that to.
Q. Your second year as head coach, you've been with Eastern for a long time, assistant coach and playing, but you're now in the National Championship in your second year. Have you had anytime to reflect on that, or does this also just kind of become your new standard?
COACH BEST: I think the standard was laid well before my time as head football coach. I had the opportunity to play in the semifinal game in 1997, believe it or not. Every kid we recruit nowadays is born in the 2000s, which is incredible to me.
So I've experienced it as a player and then as a coach many a time, assistant coach under Paul Wolff and Beau Baldwin. They set the standard. It's our job to continue the standard and push the standard. Yes, I'd love this to be the standard every year, but to get to this step you've got to get a chance to get into that 24-team bracket. To do that in the Big Sky Conference, you have to solidify yourself as a conference champion. And so we were not the recipient of the auto bid this year, but we did enough work to give ourselves a chance in the dance.
So it is the standard. It will continue to be the standard. But the one thing that I do challenge -- and I think it's the hardest thing to stay on top, Coach Klieman and company, and Coach Bohl and company, that's an impressive run they have. There's no two ways about it.
To stay on top at the level they've been at and continue to be at, to me that's the hardest. It's harder to stay on top when you are the top dog than it is to get to the top once when you haven't been the top dog.
You can catch lightning in a bottle, but when you do what they've done over the course of time, that's not lightning in a bottle. That's real foundation. And it's worked through two head coaches up to this point. And I imagine Coach Entz will probably employ his own fingerprints on it. But the DNA is probably not going to change.
So, yes, the standard will always stay Big Sky champions. But if we don't get that ticket, then we certainly want to have a chance in the 24 to give ourselves a chance to play in January.
Q. No doubt you've kind of noticed the amount of Bison fans around in the community and also the signage that's up. Is there any part of you that's kind of embracing this kind of crash-the-party mentality that this is, hey, look, you need to remind people that Eastern Washington is here, too?
COACH BEST: People know we're here. We've been around a long time. We just haven't had the success they've had on the national stage in terms of hoisting National Championships.
By no means -- someone's gotta win. That's what I do know. So someone's paid to determine who the underdog is and who the non-underdog is. So what our job and our duty is, is to put the best product on the field from 11:00 in the morning tomorrow until 2:00 p.m. And so I know we get asked that question when we go to Mountlake or Pullman or Lubbock or anywhere else, well, you're the underdog, how are you going to approach this?
We're going to approach this with a game plan based on what we see. Employ that game plan. And if that game plan doesn't go as planned, we have adjustments, just like the other team across from us.
So, no, we're not going to use this as a motivator. Bison fans are highly respected, travel really well, are loud and are proud. That's why fan is what it is. It's short for fanatic. And they're fanatical. We played in Fargo two years ago and it was awesome to be a part of.
It was an awesome venue to be a part of. That's a lot of their success is due to the fan base, because when you can't hear yourself in their stadium, that bodes well much like Missoula. It is a 12th, and I would argue a 13th man, if you will. But here they might have 11 and a half, get to 12. But we're just excited for the opportunity regardless of the, quote/unquote, underdog role.
Q. A few guys were kind of on the fence about suiting up tomorrow: Guys like Zach Eagle, guys like Cole, Prunty. Will we see them in helmets and pads tomorrow?
COACH BEST: Zach Eagle will not suit. Tysen Prunty will suit. Cole Karstetter will suit.
Q. All week the talk in Fargo has been about the explosive plays that you guys have. Is that the same mentality for you guys with them, stopping explosive plays that they're going to bring out?
COACH BEST: I'll tell you two things that stick out amongst many others, but the two off the top of my head are the Bison defense tackles well. You can tell that's a defensive coach coaching as a head football coach. They tackle well.
The one thing we must do is tackle well. You've got to find a way to bring people to the ground. So dynamic plays a lot of times aren't people wide open, and it's not necessarily outscheming somebody, because when you get to this stage, you might get a play but you're not going to outscheme someone six or eight or 10 times, you're probably not in this position. It's about players making individual plays based on the play call that's made by the coordinator.
We have to have some individual players, not do anything different than they've done, but try to break a tackle, try to extend the football and try to stay on blocks a bit longer.
And the last time I checked, it was my mantra as an O line coach, if your guys doesn't make the play, we've got a chance to score. As funny as that sounds, it goes back to blocking and tackling and catching, all the same things, it's just on a higher level on a bit bigger stage from a national standpoint.