Eagles advance to National Championship game with 50-19 win

Eagles advance to National Championship game with 50-19 win

A fast start and taking advantage of turnovers means the Eagles are headed to Frisco.

For the first time in four tries in the semifinals since winning the 2010 NCAA Division I championship, the Eagles jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and were victorious in the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs by routing Maine 50-19 Saturday (Dec. 15) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

Fourth-seeded Eastern will play for the NCAA Division I title on Saturday, Jan. 5 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, in the championship game, which begins at 9 a.m. Pacific time on ESPN2. Eastern will play defending champion and unbeaten North Dakota State, which beat South Dakota State 44-21 in Friday’s other semifinal game. The Bison are 14-0 and are the top-ranked and top-seeded team in FCS, with titles in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

“We’re going to enjoy this for a few days,” said Eastern head coach Aaron Best , who as an assistant coach in 2010 when EWU won the title. “This has taken a lot of time, effort, focus and energy to get to this point. But the journey doesn’t end here. For three weeks we’ve been fortunate enough to knock off a league champion, and here we are playing against another.”

Sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere led the way for the Eagles with a career-high 405 yards of total offense, including 352 passing with seven touchdown passes to tie a school record and break the FCS Playoffs record. Wide receiver Nsimba Webster tied both the school and FCS Playoffs records with four touchdown receptions, and finished with nine catches for 188 yards.

Eastern also rushed for 216 yards against the top rushing defense in FCS, as EWU out-gained the Bears 568-479 in total offense. Senior Sam McPherson had 64 rushing yards, but three other players had at least 41. The Eagles didn’t give up a sack versus a team ranked second in FCS with 47 total on the year.

Junior safety Dehonta Hayes led Eastern defensively with a career-high 13 tackles, with EWU as a team forcing four turnovers, getting three sacks and finishing with eight passes broken up. Eastern now has 70 passes broken up this season to break the previous record of 67 set in 2010.

Senior cornerback Josh Lewis intercepted a pass that set-up EWU’s first score, then a strip-sack and fumble recovery by sophomore Keith Moore led to a second TD later in the quarter. Eastern led 28-0 at halftime and then scored 22 points in the second half to win its seventh-straight game.

“It was a total team effort,” said Best. “I can’t say enough to score 50 and allow only 19 in a semifinal against a very good Maine Black Bears team. That says something. Our team played very, very energized today and were very passionate. People wanted to know why we couldn’t win in a semifinal on our home field since 2010, and here we are – we did it today.”

Eastern finished the regular season ranked fourth in the STATS Top 25 poll and were third in the American Football Coaches Association poll, while Maine was 12th and 14th in the two polls, respectively. Right with the Eagles were Weber State (3/4) and UC Davis (7/10), with Montana State also ranked (23/24) and earning a playoff berth with a 7-4 record.

Records & Rankings . . .

* Now 12-2 overall and finishing 7-1 in the Big Sky in 2018, Eastern captured its 10th Big Sky title and a 13th appearance in the FCS Playoffs. This is the 12th-straight season the Eagles will have finished 5-3 or better in the Big Sky, with a 12th-straight winning season and 21st in the last 23 years.

* Maine closed its season 10-4 and was the outright champions in the CAA (Colonial Athletic Association). The seventh-seeded Black Bears upset No. 2 seed Weber State 23-18 in the quarterfinals on Dec. 7.

What It Means . . .

* Eastern will take its 1-0 championship game record up against a North Dakota State team which has won six of the last seven FCS titles since EWU won in 2010. The Bison have lost just one playoff game since losing to Eastern 38-31 in overtime in the quarterfinals in 2010, and NDSU is a perfect 6-0 in the title game. The game versus Maine was Eastern’s sixth trip to the semifinals in 13 playoff appearances (12th-most in FCS history), with Eastern beating Villanova 41-31 in the 2010 semifinals at Roos Field before knocking off Delaware 20-19 in Frisco for the title. The Eagles were playing in their 29th game in the FCS playoffs all-time and 21st at home, and lost in the semifinals at Roos Field in 2012, 2013 and 2016, and at Albi Stadium in Spokane in 1997. The Eagles are now 19-11 all-time in the FCS Playoffs to move into eighth all-time in wins.

* Eastern has won 12 games for just the fourth time in school history, with the record coming during EWU’s national championship season in 2010 when the Eagles were victorious 13 times. Eastern won 12 games in 1997, 2013 and 2016, and had 11 in 2012, 2014 and 1967. Thus, this is the sixth time in the last nine seasons (2010-2018) that Eastern has been victorious at least 11 times.

What’s Next . . .

Eastern and North Dakota State will meet on Saturday, Jan. 5 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, in the championship game, which begins at 9 a.m. Pacific time on ESPN2. Top-seeded and unbeaten North Dakota State (14-0) beat fifth-seeded South Dakota State 44-21 in the other semifinal game, played Friday (Dec. 14) at in Fargo, N.D.

Keys to Game . . .

* Sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere and senior Nsimba Webster hooked up four times for touchdowns on a record-setting day for both players. Barriere had seven touchdown passes to tie the record of seven set by Vernon Adams Jr. versus Washington on Sept. 6, 2014. It also broke the previous FCS Playoffs record of six held by five former players, including Eagles Kyle Padron and Adams in 2012. Barriere finished with a career-high 405 yards of total offense, including 352 passing and 53 rushing. Webster had TD catches of 11, 16, 9 and 58 yards from Barriere, and finished with nine catches for 188 yards. His four TDs tied the school record held by three other EWU players and the FCS Playoffs record by a pair of players, including Marshall’s Randy Moss in 1996. Besides his four touchdowns to Webster, Barriere also had TD passes of 3 and 29 yards to Jayce Gilder , and a 1-yard toss to Andrew Boston .

Turning Point . . .

* A week after forcing four turnovers in a quarterfinal win over UC Davis but not scoring any points off of them, EWU scored 14 quick points off turnovers in the first quarter. Josh Lewis had the first of his two interceptions early in the game at the Maine 22-yard line, and returned it to the 1 to set-up a TD pass from sophomore Eric Barriere to redshirt freshman Andrew Boston . Later in the quarter, after a strip-sack and recovery by sophomore Keith Moore , Barriere capped a 56-yard drive with a 3-yard TD pass to Jayce Gilder . Later in the quarter, Eastern went on a seven-play, 75-yard drive to take a 21-0 lead. That was capped by an 11-yard TD pass by Barriere to Nsimba Webster – the first of a school-record four Webster would have on the day.

Top Performers . . .

* In the 10th start of his career and ninth this season, junior Eric Barriere accounted for 405 yards of offense. He completed 21-of-30 passes and had a school-record seven touchdowns, plus rushed seven times for 53 yards. He had a touchdown run called back because of a penalty. He is now 9-1 as a starter, including 8-1 this season as an injury replacement for Gage Gubrud . Eastern is 8-0 when he’s rushed for at least 20 yards this season.
* Senior wide receiver Nsimba Webster had nine catches for 188 yards and four touchdowns, equaling EWU’s school record shared by three other players. It was his second-most yards in his career, ranking behind the 212 he had on 10 catches in EWU’s 2018 opener versus Central Washington. He now has eight 100-yard performances in his career.
* Senior running back Sam McPherson rushed for 64 yards to lead a quartet of Eastern players with at least 41 yards. He has six 100-yard performances in his career and five this season, and now has 1,288 yards this season to remain fifth in single season school history. Quarterback Eric Barriere rushed for 53, Antoine Custer Jr. had 45 and Tamarick Pierce rushed for 41, with Dennis Merritt pitching in 22 on a trio of carries. Eastern as a team averaged 6.0 per rush.
* Junior Jayce Gilder had a pair of touchdown catches (3 and 29 yards) and finished with three catches for 50 yards.
* Junior Jayson Williams caught three passes for 70 yards for the Eagles, including a 38-yard gain.
* Senior Josh Lewis had a pair of interceptions to give him 10 in his career and move into a tie for ninth in school history. He also had three passes broken up to give him 23 in his career and move into ninth all-time at EWU, and helped EWU establish a new season school record in the process He also had five tackles for the Eagle defense.
* Junior Dehonta Hayes led Eastern with a career-high 13 tackles, eclipsing his previous high of 12 versus Weber State on Oct. 13. He also had a pass broken up, helping EWU establish a new season school record.
* Senior linebacker Ketner Kupp and sophomore linebacker Chris Ojoh each had eight tackles. Kupp has nine career games in double figures in tackles and Ojoh, who was making just the seventh start of his career, has three. Ojoh had two quarterback hurries versus the Black Bears.
* Sixth-year senior kicker Roldan Alcobendas didn’t have any field goals, and remains as the only player in FCS to be perfect on the season at 15-for-15. But he converted all six of his extra points to improve to 68-of-69 for the season (last 67 consecutively) and punted six times for a 41.6 average, with three downed inside the UC Davis 20-yard line. He now has 113 kick scoring points in 2018 after having previously broke the record of 103 set by Josh Atwood in 1997. The 113 points ranks fifth in Big Sky history, just nine from the league record of 122. Alcobendas has a school-record 314 career points which is sixth in Big Sky history. With 67-straight extra points made this season, he broke his own single season record of 63 consecutive in 2016. He set the career record for extra points in a row with 85 from 2016-17.

Key Stats . . .

* Eastern didn’t allow a sack and rushed for 216 yards – 6.0 per rush – which played a big part in EWU scoring 50 points for the sixth time this season. Maine brought a defense to Cheney which led FCS in rushing defense and ranked ninth overall. The Black Bears allowed just 68.7 yards on the ground this season, and are allowing just 2.11 yards per carry to lead FCS, while EWU was averaging 6.78 per carry to rank second in FCS offensively and 266.6 per game (10th in FCS). Maine was also second in FCS in sacks, with three players with at least nine (Sterling Sheffield, Kayon Whitaker, Deshawn Stevens). The Black Bears also featured the FCS leader in passes broken up (Manny Patterson with 22), but had only one.