(STATS) - It was a combination of frustration and desperation when Eastern Washington inserted a third-string redshirt freshman for his first significant playing time at quarterback in the second half of a blowout loss at rival Montana last November.
It wasn't until spring practices earlier this year that many people perked up to Gage Gubrud's ability.
Could an unknown sophomore supplant the two returning quarterbacks ahead of him, including one who threw for over 3,000 yards last season?
Not only did Gubrud provide the answer in his first career start in early September, but he, Cooper Kupp and Eastern Washington have a chance to finish as one of the greatest passing offenses in FCS history.
The No. 3-ranked Eagles have soared behind an air attack that produces 445.6 passing yards per game. It's an average that at the end of the season would rank second in FCS history.
Mississippi Valley State's 496.8-yard average in 1984 behind quarterback Willie Totten and wide receiver Jerry Rice may never be topped, but the Eagles are ahead of the next-best passing offenses, Steve McNair and Alcorn State in 1994 (442.3 ypg) and Neil Lomax and Portland State in 1980 (434.9).
Six teams have averaged over 400 passing yards in FCS history.
As Eastern Washington (6-1, 4-0) gets sets to host No. 16 Montana (5-2, 2-2) in the Big Sky Conference on Saturday, Gubrud is getting better. In last year's matchup, he only entered the game behind Reilly Hennessey and Jordan West when, at 50-9, the outcome was no longer in doubt.
This season, Gubrud helped lead Eastern Washington to a 45-42 upset at Washington State in the season opener - passing for 474 yards and setting a school record with 551 yards of total offense - and there's been no looking back.
"I like to break the season down to thirds, to get a feel for how someone is playing early in the season, in the middle of the season and late in the season - especially when you are talking about young quarterbacks," EWU coach Beau Baldwin said.
"The thing I love about Gage compared to his first three games is that he's playing incredibly patient and disciplined. He's continuing to take what a defense gives him, and teams can sometimes frustrate you when they force you to continually take everything underneath. He's handling that really well, and regardless of the statistics and yards, he's taking care of the football a ton better than he did at the beginning of the year. Those are the steps he's taken that I've been most impressed with, and how he's growing as a quarterback"
Gubrud has completed 212 of 299 passes (70.9 percent) for 2,886 yards and 27 touchdowns with six interceptions (all before the Big Sky season began). His 520 passing yards at Montana State last Saturday set the Eagles' single-game record, and he raised the team's run of consecutive passes without an interception to 169 (140 by Gubrud).
The offense also features Kupp, the greatest receiver in FCS history (most receiving yards and touchdown receptions, and soon-to-be most receptions). But when the 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year missed 1½ games with a shoulder injury last month, the production was seamless.
The Eagles have the Big Sky's three leaders in receiving yards - Kupp, 866; Kendrick Bourne, 696; and Shaq Hill, 669. In their careers, the trio has combined for 694 receptions for 10,580 yards and 111 touchdowns in their career.
It's all come together for the Eagles - in a historical way.
FCS CO-GAME OF THE WEEK=
The Matchup: No. 16 Montana (5-2, 2-2 Big Sky) at No. 3 Eastern Washington (6-1, 4-0)
Kickoff: 3:35 p.m. ET at Roos Field (8,600) in Cheney, Washington
Television: ROOT Sports
Series: Montana leads 27-15-1 (most recent meeting: UM won 57-16 on Nov. 14, 2015 in Missoula)
The Skinny: Bitter rivals meet with Eastern Washington leading the Big Sky Conference in total offense (571.7 ypg) and Montana top-ranked in total defense (318.1 ypg). UM kicker Tim Semenza (62 points) and leading rushing Jeremy Calhoun (60) rank 1-2 in the conference in scoring. QB Brady Gustafson (2,195 yards, 22 TDs) will be even more dangerous if and when leading receiver Jerry Louie-McGee returns from injury. While the Griz employ a 4-3 defense, they might have to keep LB Josh Buss (14.5 tackles for loss) back in pass coverage with DE Caleb Kidder (4.5 sacks) supplying the pressure on EWU QB Gage Gubrud. EWU is one of the three unbeaten teams in Big Sky games (4-0 Weber State plays at 5-0 North Dakota on Saturday). The Eagles have trailed at halftime in five of their seven games, then outscored opponents 207-78 in the second half. On an often-maligned defense, seniors Samson Ebukam (DE), Miquiyah Zamora (LB) and Zach Bruce (S) form a strong trio.
Prediction: The stakes would be higher if Montana hadn't lost at Northern Arizona last weekend. A rainy day could slow down the Eagles. Eastern Washington, 34-30.
FCS CO-GAME OF THE WEEK=
The Matchup: No. 4 North Dakota State (6-1, 3-1 Missouri Valley) at Northern Iowa (3-4, 2-2)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET at the UNI-Dome (16,324) in Cedar Falls, Iowa
Television: ESPN3 (KVLY, NBC North Dakota network, Panther Sports Network)
Series: Northern Iowa leads 26-23 (most recent meeting: North Dakota State won 23-13 in the FCS quarterfinals on Dec. 12, 2015 in Fargo)
The Skinny: The Missouri Valley Conference rivalry, in its 50th meeting, is usually one of the highlights of the FCS season, although UNI has been disappointing, losing four times by a combined 17 points. It's a bit of a revenge game for five-time defending FCS champ NDSU, whose gaudy 77-6 record since the start of the 2011 season includes only one loss by more than three points - 23-3 at the UNI-Dome two years ago, which ended the Bison's FCS-record 33-game winning streak. NDSU ranks eighth in the FCS in total defense (239.4 ypg). The Bison will try to rely on the ball-control rushing of RBs King Frazier and Lance Dunn as well as QB Easton Stick on draws. The Panthers are 16-6 at the UNI-Dome against NDSU. QB Eli Dunne, replacing Aaron Bailey, threw for 418 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start last Saturday against Missouri State. The defense has forced 17 turnovers, returning four pick-sixes. DE Karter Schult has been exceptional with 15 tackles for loss and an FCS-high 9.5 sacks.
Prediction: North Dakota State usually wins the line of scrimmage in a decisive way, but Northern Iowa is formidable, too. Expect a grind-it-out battle. NDSU, 20-17.
STATS FCS TOP 25 SCHEDULE=
Saturday, Oct. 24
All Times ET
Bucknell (3-4) at X-No. 9 Charleston Southern (4-2), 11:45 a.m. - With his team stepping out of conference one last time, CSU coach Jamey Chadwell will serve his one-game NCAA suspension for an assistant's recruiting violation on social media.
No. 22 Stony Brook (5-2, 4-0 CAA) at X-New Hampshire (5-3, 4-1), noon - Without a win here, UNH will be hard-pressed to make the FCS playoffs for a 13th straight year. None of the Wildcats' wins are against a team with a winning record.
Florida A&M (3-5, 3-2 MEAC) at X-No. 12 North Carolina A&T (6-1, 4-0), 1 p.m. - Bethune-Cookman coach Terry Sims says it's time to stop calling A&T's Tarik Cohen, the MEAC's all-time leading rusher, the best running back in black college football and count him among the best in college football.
X-No. 24 Harvard (5-1, 3-0 Ivy) at Dartmouth (3-3, 0-3), 1:30 p.m. - The Crimson are a different team when quarterback Joe Viviano is in the lineup.
East Tennessee State (3-4, 1-4 Southern) at X-No. 5 The Citadel (7-0, 5-0), 2 p.m. - The Bulldogs have tied their program record for consecutive wins in a single season. They'll set a new mark here as ETSU hasn't scored more than seven points in their last four SoCon games.
Weber State (5-2, 4-0 Big Sky) at X-No. 17 North Dakota (6-2, 5-0), 2 p.m. - The ability to stop the run isn't a strength of Weber's, so that's an advantage to Brady Oliveira, John Santiago and the Fighting Hawks, who have rushed for over 200 yards in six straight wins.
X-No. 18 Coastal Carolina (5-2) at Presbyterian (2-5), 2 p.m. - After linebacker Alex Searce's two touchdowns last week, the Chanticleers have scored 44 non-offensive points this season.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-6, 1-4 SWAC) at X-No. 21 Grambling State (5-1, 4-0), 3 p.m. - Grambling's two opponents out of a three-week layoff have a combined one win. Just how did UAPB beat two-time defending SWAC champ Alcorn State last month?
X-No. 7 South Dakota State (5-2, 4-0 Missouri Valley) at Illinois State (3-5, 1-4), 3 p.m. - The surging Jackrabbits are trying for a five-game sweep in October, which would include all three MVFC schools from Illinois for the first time since they joined the conference in 2008.
No. 23 Eastern Illinois (5-3, 3-2 OVC) at X-No. 2 Jacksonville State (6-1, 3-0), 3:30 p.m. - The last time the Gamecocks lost in the regular season to an FCS opponent was against EIU, 52-14 on Nov. 16, 2013. It's been 27 wins in a row since then, including 20 straight in the Ohio Valley Conference.
X-No. 13 Western Illinois (5-2, 2-2 Missouri Valley) at South Dakota (4-3, 3-1), 3 p.m. - WIU senior Lance Lenoir's next reception will tie him for the MVFC all-time record (250, Illinois State's Tyrone Walker from 2009-12).
Rhode Island (1-7, 0-5 CAA) at X-No. 8 James Madison (6-1, 4-0), 3:30 p.m. - If it's 4th-and-36, URI should go for it because JMU is averaging 37.4 yards per punt return. At least run a BYU fake.
No. 20 Samford (6-1) at X-Mississippi State (2-5), 3:30 p.m. - Stay out of the SEC. Samford is 2-75-3 all-time against members of the SEC, but one of the wins is against Mississippi State (6-0 in 1909).
X-No. 19 Central Arkansas (6-1, 5-0 Southland) at Southeastern Louisiana (4-3, 4-1), 3:30 p.m. - On a strong Bears' defense, senior cornerback Tyler Williams is tied for the FCS high in passes defended with 13 (one interception and 12 breakups).
X-No. 10 Chattanooga (7-1, 5-1 Southern) at Western Carolina (1-6, 0-5), 3:30 p.m. - In the last three meetings, the Mocs have outscored Western Carolina 94-6 in the first half.
No. 25 Tennessee State (5-2, 2-1 OVC) at X-Murray State (2-5, 2-2), 4 p.m. - A Murray State upset last week has Eastern Illinois playing for its playoff lives. The Racers, behind quarterback KD Humphries, will try to put Tennessee State in the same situation.
Indiana State (4-4, 2-3 Missouri Valley) at X-No. 15 Youngstown State (5-2, 3-1), 4 p.m. - A season after Zak Kennedy was the FCS freshman leader in field goals (19), the Penguins have the freshman leader in punting average, Mark Schuler at 41.8 yards.
Texas Southern (3-4) at X-No. 1 Sam Houston State (7-0), 7 p.m. - This game came about after FBS member New Mexico canceled a matchup with Sam Houston. The top-ranked Bearkats must be rooting for McNeese (4-4) this week because none of their wins are against a team currently with a winning record.
X-No. 14 Cal Poly (5-2, 3-1 Big Sky) at Sacramento State (1-7, 1-4), 9 p.m. - Although Cal Poly has the No. 2 rushing attack in the FCS, quarterback Dano Graves has a 207.9 pass efficiency rating.
Idle: No. 6 Richmond (7-1, 4-1 CAA) and No. 11 Villanova (6-2, 4-1 CAA)