Making the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs isn’t supposed to be easy. But Eastern Washington coach Paul Wulff must be wondering what he and his Eagles did to deserve this.
Despite all that has been accomplished during this bounce-back season, Eastern must still find a way past the hottest team in the Big Sky Conference this afternoon if it hopes to have any realistic chance of earning one of the eight at-large berths in the 16-team FCS playoff field, which will be revealed Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
Today’s regular-season finale pits the 15th-ranked Eagles (7-3 overall, 5-2 in the Big Sky) against Weber State (5-5, 4-3) in a battle of surprise teams that were lightly regarded in most preseason polls. A loss would not only shatter Eastern’s playoff dreams, but it would drop the Eagles back into what could be a multiteam tie for second place in the Big Sky standings.
Both EWU and Weber come in riding three-game winning streaks, but the Wildcats have been much more impressive than the Eagles late in the season. Coach Ron McBride’s team has averaged 57.7 points in its wins over Portland State, Idaho State and Fort Lewis, while Eastern struggled to hold off Big Sky bottom-feeders Sacramento State and Northern Colorado before thumping Northern Arizona 52-24 in Flagstaff, Ariz., last weekend.
“Everything,” Wulff answered when asked what the Wildcats have been doing well lately. “If you score that many points, there’s not much you’re doing wrong. They run the ball extremely well and the quarterback is both mobile and accurate throwing the ball both long and short.
“They’re playing the best football in the Big Sky right now.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Weber’s offense has been its balance.
Sophomore running back Trevyn Smith has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Wildcats’ last six games, while redshirt freshman quarterback Cameron Higgins has thrown for 1,008 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last three outings.
“They’ve got the complete thing going right now, offensively,” Wulff said. “They can do it all, and they’ve got very talented people doing it. They’ve got good speed at receiver, they’ve got the best running back in the league in Trevyn Smith and their quarterback is now able to hit receivers in stride.”
Eastern, however, comes in on a confidence high after leveling a solid NAU team last Saturday behind another impressive performance by sophomore quarterback Matt Nichols, who was named one of The Sports Network’s national FCS offensive players of the week after completing 17 of 22 passes for 316 yards and five touchdowns against the Lumberjacks.
“On film, their quarterback might be the most poised and confident one we’ve seen this season,” McBride said of Nichols, who has thrown for 2,869 yards and 26 TDs this season. “He doesn’t get rattled and really delivers the ball to the right spot at the right time.”
McBride admires EWU’s execution on both sides of the ball.
“When you look at everything, from their special teams to their defense, to their quarterback, I think they’re really a well-coached football team,” he said. “They’re gap efficient on defense. Guys are always in the right gaps, using the right techniques, and their linebackers key the right reads.
“You watch them on film and think, ‘Now this guy is supposed to here,’ and that’s where he is.”
McBride said he and his team are approaching this like a playoff game similar to one EWU hopes to be playing next weekend.
“To get to the next level in this league, we need to learn to win this type of game,” he said. “They are playing for a playoff berth. We are playing for a winning season and chance to finish second.
“I think it would be a big plus for us to move up in the league and finish off on a good note, so it’s a big game for us.”