Run-heavy Eastern Washington faces run-stopping Maine for a trip to the FCS national title game
All Eastern Washington center Spencer Blackburn could do was watch from the freezing sidelines as Youngstown State marched down Roos Field in the closing seconds of the 2016 FCS semifinals and scored the game-winning touchdown.
It was an agonizing ordeal for Blackburn and EWU (11-2), which hosts Maine (10-3) Saturday in the 2018 edition of the FCS semifinals, the Eagles’ fifth semifinal appearance in nine years.
Now EWU wants to put that experience to work.
“Half of our team has started in a semifinal game,” said Blackburn, who faces a Maine team that’s enjoying its deepest playoff run in program history. “That’s a big advantage against a (Maine) team that hasn’t played in a semifinal – but they’re a very talented outfit.”
The third-seeded and Big Sky Conference champion Eagles face the seventh-seeded, Colonial Athletic Association champions for a Jan. 5 date at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, home of the FCS national title game.
Saturday’s winner will face top-ranked juggernaut North Dakota State (13-0) in the championship round.
EWU has been tripped up three times at home in the semifinals since winning the program’s first national title in 2010.
To break through, the run-heavy Eagles (266.6 rushing yards per game) will have to find a way to move the football against the country’s top run defense (68 rushing yards allowed a game).
EWU has the second-ranked offense (538 yards per game, 44.1 points per game) in the FCS, one that features a running game that set program records in single-season rushing yards (3,466) and single-season rushing touchdowns (39).
Running back Sam McPherson (1,288 yards) and fleet-footed dual-threat quarterback Eric Barriere (560 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) spearhead the Eagles’ dynamic ground game.
Maine coach Joe Harasymiak, 32, praised EWU’s ground attack.
“It’ll be critical to our success to stop the run this weekend,” said Harasymiak, whose team practiced at Whitworth on Friday. “ (EWU) does a lot things formationally. Motions, different things. We just have to just guard against the big play.”
Barriere watched the ESPN2 broadcast last week of Maine’s 23-18 road upset of second-seed Weber State and was impressed with the Black Bears’ vicious defense.
All-American linebacker Sterling Shepherd (17.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and seven pass breakups) anchors a Maine defense that carries the moniker of “The Black Hole.”
“Pretty good team. Pretty physical defense,” said Barriere, who has passed for 1,900 yards and 17 touchdowns in eight starts. “They have some players that fly around, especially at the linebacker position.”
Maine, which is 7-0 against ranked opponents this season, also ranks second in sacks (47), and turnovers forced (30), third in tackles for a loss (111) and ninth in yards allowed (293 per game).
“They had (Weber State’s) offensive line going back on every single play,” Blackburn said. They’re very destructive on the front line. It’s really difficult to have plays going the right way when you’re starting the play behind the line of scrimmage.”
Offensively, the run-first Black Bears (27.1 points per game), are led by freshman Ramon Jefferson (972 yards) and quarterback Chris Ferguson (2,047 yards, 29 touchdowns). Maine lost to Yale and Central Michigan when Ferguson was out with an injury.
Maine will face with the Big Sky Conference’s best scoring defense (21.8), a group led by All-American defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year.
EWU’s ranks sixth in forced turnovers (28), first in defensive touchdowns (6) and hasn’t yielded more than 29 points at home, where the Eagles are 8-0 this season.
“(Roos Field) is a great environment and we’re excited about playing there,” Harasymiak said. “They’re a great program, they’re really well-coached and they’ve in this position before.”
Maine will be playing its ninth away game of the season. The Black Bears made the 3,000-mile trek to Spokane on Thursday, just days after flying back from Ogden, Utah, a 2,600-mile trip.
“We have to go to another team’s turf again and play a team that is proven,” he said.
Harasymiak didn’t put much stock into EWU’s 14-6 loss at Weber State in October, and said he emphasized during the week that that game wasn’t indicative of the Eagle’s talent.
“No offense to Weber, but I don’t think EWU played well,” he said. “The EWU team we’ve seen on tape since then is a lot different.”