For a second consecutive weekend, the defensive unit on Eastern Washington University’s No. 1-ranked and fifth-seeded football team is preparing to drop anchor, settle in and gear up to stop the run.
“I told our kids to put a little extra air in their helmets and tighten the screws,” Eagles defensive coordinator John Graham said about his plan to deal with North Dakota State’s physical running attack in today’s 12:30 p.m. Football Championship Subdivision playoff quarterfinal against the Bison at Roos Field.
“They run the ball, and they come straight downhill at you.”
Southeast Missouri State, which Eastern (10-2) leveled 37-17 in a second-round showdown last Saturday, was a team also built to run the football. But the Redhawks relied much more on multiple formations and option sleight of hand than does 25th-ranked NDSU (9-4).
“It’s a different kind of running game than we saw last week,” Graham said of the Bison ground attack, which features a massive, but agile, offensive line and the considerable talents of junior tailback D.J. McNorton, who has rushed for 1,435 yards and 14 touchdowns. “They don’t try to trick you like Southeast Missouri.
“They’ve got big kids up front, who are pretty athletic, and their tailback is the real deal. He’s got great balance, great vision and a little more breakaway speed than the kid (SEMO’s Henry Harris) last week.”
McNorton, a 5-foot-9, 203-pounder, is averaging 110.4 rushing yards per game and 5.7 per carry. He ran for a season-high 250 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-16 Missouri Valley Football Conference win over South Dakota in late September and torched Montana State for 207 yards and a career-high four TDs in a 42-17 second-round rout of the fourth-seeded Bobcats in Bozeman last Saturday.
“He’s an explosive player,” Eastern’s two-time All-American senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt said of McNorton, who scored on runs of 3, 19, 38 and 52 yards against MSU. “And the thing about him is he’s not trying to go sideways. He just plants his foot in the ground and goes.
“He went for over 200 yards against a Montana State team that prides itself on stopping the run, and that right there says a lot about the kid.”
According to EWU’s junior quarterback, Bo Levi Mitchell, the Bison defense is also big and physical up front.
“Just like their offense, they try to bring that physical element to the game and assert their dominance by showing they’re the more physical team,” Mitchell said of NDSU’s front four, which is anchored by junior end Coulter Boyer, a 6-4 1/2, 245-pound junior who leads the team with eight sacks.
“Obviously, that’s something we have to overcome and prove the opposite.”
Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin expects his offense to face one of its most severe challenges of the year.
“They mix it up, coverage-wise, just enough to keep you guessing, they play really physical up front and they’re just incredibly well-coached,” he said of the Bison defenders, who have held opponents to an average of just 16.7 points per game. “They don’t get themselves out of position, and they’re as good a tacklers as I’ve seen.
“They just do a lot of the little things you need to do to be a great defense.”
EWU’s Sherritt needs nine tackles to reach 400 and break the school’s career record of 399 held by Greg Belzer (1997-2000). … North Dakota State has outscored its first two playoffs opponents – Robert Morris (43-17) and MSU (42-17) – by an average of 25.5 points per game. … The winner of today’s EWU-NDSU game advances to the semifinals to meet the winner of today’s Appalachian State vs. Villanova matchup Friday or next Saturday at a site yet to be determined.