Two Walter Payton Award candidates, with running styles as different as their teams’ postseason pedigrees, will put their considerable talents on display at Roos Field this afternoon when No. 1-ranked and fifth-seeded Eastern Washington University entertains ninth-ranked Southeast Missouri State in a second-round Football Championship Subdivision playoff game that kicks off at 1:05.
Eastern (9-2), which is making its fifth playoff appearance in seven seasons, boasts one of the nation’s most electrifying runners in junior Taiwan Jones, who led the Big Sky Conference in rushing this fall with an average of 134.4 yards per game and was named the conference’s co-offensive player of the year.
But Southeast Missouri (9-2), which won the Ohio Valley Conference championship to earn its first postseason playoff berth, has an equally impressive ballcarrier in senior Henry Harris, who averaged 147.9 rushing yards per game during the regular season and was named his confer- ence’s top offensive player.
How those two fare today on the red turf in Cheney could go a long way in deciding who advances to next Saturday’s quarterfinals to take on the winner of today’s second-round matchup between fourth-seeded Montana State (9-2) and North Dakota State (8-4) in Bozeman, Mont.
EWU coach Beau Baldwin was impressed with Harris from the first time he saw him on video.
“He’s not a big guy,” Baldwin said of the 5-foot-8, 185-pounder, who ranks second among FCS players in rushing, “but he runs a lot bigger than he is. He’s carried the load for them this year. He’s a grind-it-out type of runner, who can hit a little bit of a home-run ball when he needs to.”
Harris is averaging more than 26 carries per game and 5.7 yards per carry.
“He’s a tough kid and a tough runner, who just continues to get his yards,” Baldwin said. “But the thing that impresses me most about him is how strong and durable he’s been.”
Jones, a 6-1, 200-pound junior, who averages 7.6 yards per carry, is more of a big-play threat than Harris, but has averaged just 17.6 carries per game after missing one complete game and parts of two others with an abdominal contusion suffered in the Eagles’ last loss – a 30-7 setback to Montana State in Bozeman on Sept. 25.
Still, he managed to catch the attention of Redhawks coach Tony Samuel.
“He’s very fast,” Samuel said of Jones, who also returns kicks and ranks second in the nation in all-purpose yards with an average of 195.1 per game. “And they’re going to make sure he gets his share of touches in the game.
“He touches it on specials team, he runs it and they throw the ball to him. He’s just a big-play kind of back, and he does a great job of making people miss out in space.”
One of the big plusses for Harris is the talented and experienced blockers he has in front of him. Four members of the Redhawks’ senior offensive line were first-team All-OVC selections. And Samuel’s junior quarterback, Matt Scheible, gives those big hogs up front the majority of credit for Southeast’s massive turnaround from last fall’s 2-9 record.
“Personally, I thought we should have a fifth (O-lineman) on the all-league team,” said Scheible, who is the Redhawks’ second-leading rusher with 833 yards on 155 carries. “They’ve been the key to us going from 2-9 to 9-2.
“Those five, along with our change in attitude. I mean, it’s not like we put in any more work than we did last year. It’s just that we’re of a mindset around here now where we’re not going to accept losing any more. We’re tired of it and finally have some confidence.”
EWU comes into today’s game with a seven-game winning streak. … Ohio Valley Conference teams have lost 14 consecutive FCS playoff games and haven’t made it past the first round since 2000, when Western Kentucky opened with a 27-0 win over Florida A&M.