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Anthony Chiusano | | January 4, 2019

FCS: Two years after semis heartbreak, Ketner Kupp is driven to deliver Eastern Washington football a second title

Eagles soar with quarterback Eric Barriere

Ketner Kupp remembers the play vividly. 

The then-sophomore Eastern Washington linebacker lined up side-by-side with cornerback D'Londo Tucker across from Youngstown State tight end Kevin Rader at EWU's own 8-yard line. He said they'd run the same combo coverage about 10 times earlier that game with positive results. Not this time, though.

MORE: Schedule and how to watch the 2018 FCS playoffs | Interactive bracket | Printable bracket

In air-tight coverage, Rader somehow got a hand on quarterback Hunter Wells' throw, pinning the ball to Kupp's back with one hand as both players fell to the ground near the back of the end zone. It was ruled a touchdown, and after replay review upheld the call, Youngstown State had a miraculous 40-38 lead with one second remaining in regulation.

That heartbreak happened on Dec. 18, 2016 in the FCS championship semifinals. Youngstown State would clinch the win on the ensuing kickoff, advancing to the title game and eliminating the Eagles at home in a snowy and suddenly somber Cheney.

Thursday afternoon in Toyota Stadium's renovated Open Cup Club, the senior linebacker reflected on the moment that motivated him to get back on the cusp of winning a national title. Kupp and EWU are back in Frisco to compete for the program's first FCS national championship since 2010 against six-time national champ North Dakota State.

"I had a little saying on my phone that I'd look at the entire offseason to kind of remind me what I wanted to avoid for the rest of my career and just making sure I was ready for whatever opportunity came," Kupp said.

PREVIEW: North Dakota State stats, program history and players to watch | Eastern Washington

Kupp isn't missing any opportunities this year, leading the team in tackles (104) and ranking second in tackles for loss (5.5). With Kupp in the middle of the unit at Mike linebacker, the offensively-minded Eagles have cut their points allowed average from last year by 12.

Kupp said the major difference he sees in the defensive unit this year is its improved "discipline and consistency." Defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding added that Kupp is one of the senior captains that helps maintain that focus on the sideline.

"There's a million plays in that [2016 semifinals] game, and that was a one-in-a-million catch on his back. But that did motivate him," Schmedding said. "That's just how he and his family are wired. He's definitely one of those guys that, bottom line, whatever we set our goals as, he'll hold everyone else accountable."

Of course, Kupp's family includes emerging Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp, a teammate of Ketner at Eastern Washington from 2015-16. Cooper was a four-time first-team All-American and won the 2015 Walter Payton Award before becoming a third round NFL draft pick in 2017.

Ketner doesn't share the same national accolades, though he's a two-time conference All-Academic team member. He also now has one other bragging right over his brother.

"One big difference, I kind of kid with Ketner, is that Cooper never got to play for a national title," EWU coach Aaron Best said Thursday. "It's always Cooper this, Cooper this, Cooper that. Well, how about Ketner this?"

MORE: How North Dakota State and Eastern Washington match up statistically, position by position

Kupp said Cooper's excited for his alma mater's game this weekend and that the NFL star (currently on injured reserve) may be in attendance Saturday at Toyota Stadium.

"It's something that [Cooper] worked hard for and didn't quite get," Kupp said. "He's been super supportive and just excited to see us get this opportunity."

Ketner will get an opportunity to put a stamp on the Kupp legacy at Eastern Washington this Saturday at noon ET. He will be one of 27 seniors suiting up for the Eagles one final time.

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