Henderson Belk picked a heck of a time to have his best game as a collegiate football player.
The Kamiak High School graduate was one of the heroes of the day as the Eastern Washington University Eagles defeated the UC Davis Aggies 34-29 last Saturday in the FCS national quarterfinals.
Belk, a senior tight end, caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown on the red turf of Roos Field in Cheney, helping Eastern advance to the national semifinals. The third-seeded Eagles face seventh-seeded Maine at 11 a.m. Saturday in Cheney in a game that will be televised on ESPN2.
And Belk, who was named Eastern’s Offensive Player of the Week for his performance, was thrilled with his ability to contribute to the Eagles moving one step closer to playing for a national championship.
“It feels great, especially being a senior,” Belk said when reached in Cheney earlier this week. “This is what we worked for all year. We made it to the semis back in 2016 and I was able to contribute a little bit. But this year, being a starter and playing the whole game, it’s really fun to be a part of it and have a chance at a national title.”
Belk has toiled mostly in anonymity for the Eagles. Though the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder earned third-team All-Big Sky honors this season, Belk doesn’t typically make the highlight reel — his main contributions have been as a blocker rather than a weapon in the passing game. Indeed, he received his all-conference honors as a fullback, as he often lines up in the backfield to serve as a lead blocker.
But Belk received his time in the spotlight against UC Davis. The five catches were not only a career high, they increased his season total by 50 percent as he came into the game with just 10 grabs over Eastern’s first 12 contests. The 73 yards were just five off his career high of 78, accomplished in Eastern’s 38-14 home victory against Idaho on Oct. 27. Overall he has 15 catches for 288 yards and three TDs this season.
“It was definitely a career game for me,” Belk said about the performance against the Aggies. “It was my most catches, I scored the touchdown, plus I had a good blocking game. Everything was executed well, everything came together.”
Belk’s biggest moment Saturday came with time winding down in the second quarter. The Eagles trailed 14-7, but had the ball at midfield. Eastern quarterback Eric Barriere proceeded to complete passes to Belk on three consecutive plays, covering 13, 23 and 13 yards. The third of those was a touchdown on which Barriere faked the handoff, then quickly found Belk wide open in the right flat. Belk rumbled untouched into the end zone to tie the score at 14-14 with 4 minutes, 22 seconds remaining in the first half.
Roll out the 🔴 turf for Henderson Belk!
— FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) December 8, 2018
Eastern was playing up-tempo on that drive, so the entire three-play sequence lasted no more than 90 seconds.
“It was amazing,” Belk said. “I was pretty tired, but once the official finally signaled a touchdown it was a good moment. We were down a touchdown, so it got us tied up and it felt good to get the momentum back. I think the defense came out feeling fired up and ready to get a stop.”
“I thought he needed some oxygen,” Eastern tight ends coach Heath Pulver joked about Belk’s unusual volume of usage in catching the ball on three straight plays.
“He was in the right spot and doing the right thing,” Pulver added about why Belk had his breakout performance against UC Davis. “When you’re someone who spends the extra time during the week as far as preparation, you usually find yourself in the right spot on the concept of an offensive play. If things don’t go right, he’s watched enough film to adjust and be in the right spot. He puts in the effort every single week, it just happened to be a little more evident (Saturday).”
Next up for Belk and the Eagles is a Maine team that reached the semis by upsetting second-seeded Weber State 23-18 last Friday. Belk watched that game and saw a physical defense that’s particularly adept at stopping the run, so he knows he has his work cut out as a blocker.
But has Belk given himself the chance to think about the possibility of being a national champion?
“Oh yeah, it’s come into my head definitely more than once,” Belk admitted. “You think about it, but then you have to bring yourself back down to Earth and know that it takes a lot of work and preparation to get there. Hopefully on Saturday after the game we’re looking forward to playing for a national championship. But for now I’m solely focused on Maine and what I can do to help the team win.”