Another playoff game, another savvy senior quarterback coming to Roos Field.
“Yeah, we just keep getting lucky that way,” said Eastern Washington defensive tackle Evan Cook, who must find a way to take Illinois State star Matt Brown out of his comfort zone in Saturday’s 3 p.m. FCS quarterfinal playoff game.
The forecast calls for a high temperature of 34, but Cook and his linemates plan to bring the heat.
“He’s their key guy and makes them roll.” Cook said of Brown. “Last week we had to deal with different sets, but this team is more basic. Hopefully we can get back to playing our brand of football.”
At stake is a spot in the FCS semifinals; if the Eagles win, they will host Sam Houston State next weekend for a chance to play for the national title.
Last week, the Eagles needed three quarters to come to corral elusive Nick Doscher of Wagner; Brown is less mobile, but he’s only been sacked 11 times all season while throwing for 2,998 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, good enough to earn Offensive Most Valuable Player honors in the rugged Missouri Valley Conference.
“He’s a tough kid,” Illinois State offensive coordinator Luke Huard said of Brown.
Baldwin said Brown – whose 143.05 passer rating ranks 19th in FCS – reminds him of Southern Utah QB Brad Sorensen, who handed the 10-2 Eagles their only conference loss this year.
“I think it’s always fun going against a good quarterback like that,” said Eastern defensive end Evan Day, who will also have to contend with a solid running game. Redbird running back Darrelyn Dunn has 917 yards and 12 TDs while gaining 3.8 yards per rush.
But this is a pass-first, West Coast offense, getting almost two-thirds of its yards through the air. Leading receiver Tyrone Walker has 1,171 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns and a stellar 14.5 yards per catch.
Three other wideouts averaged at least 13 yards a catch for the Redbirds’ big-play offense.
“You really have to try and make them earn it,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin, mindful that the Eagles gave up several big plays against Wagner. “They’re too good on offense for us to blow a coverage or give up 6 or 7 plays of over 20 yards.”
Still, the 9-3 Redbirds have been inconsistent this year. After starting 5-0, they fell home 17-0 against Southern Illinois as Brown threw four interceptions. Two weeks later, Brown was only 19 for 33 for 204 yards and a pick in a 24-17 loss to Missouri State.
But the trend has been upward ever since, even in a regular-season finale with defending national champ North Dakota State. The Redbirds fell 38-20, but Brown completed 22 of 35 for 212 and no picks.
In a second-round overtime win at favored Appalachian State last week, Brown was 20 for 32 for 322 yards and five touchdowns. “He’s very impressive,” Baldwin said.
Returning the favor, Illinois State head coach Brock Spack said he was impressed with the Eastern defensive line, which he characterized as “very physical with a lot of high-motor guys.”
On defense, the Redbirds “remind us a lot of ourselves,” said Baldwin. “They don’t necessarily pressure a lot, but they do it pretty well without being too exotic.”
The Redbirds are 23rd in the FCS in total defense, and do two things especially well: sacking the quarterback and picking him off.
“Watching film, they’re a very disciplined group and fly around the ball,” said Eastern quarterback Kyle Padron, who is expected to start today.
The Redbirds rank fifth in the FCS in sacks with 3.2 per game; lineman Colton Underwood, has 10½, plus eight hurries, all by himself. Safety Ben Erickson is second in the nation in interceptions with seven, and the Redbirds are ninth in FCS in pass-efficiency defense.
“We just have to find some windows,” said Padron, who’s thrown for 689 yards in his last two games. His targets, including wide receivers Brandon Kaufman (1,444 receiving yards this season), Nick Edwards and Greg Herd, have made an impression on Spack.
“The length and and size of the receivers and the plays they make …” Spack said, then paused. “They’re very impressive.”
Both coaches are prepared for another close call, and both have been there before. The Redbirds have played in two ovetime games – winning both – and are 2-2 in four other games decided by a touchdown or less.
The Eagles are 6-2 in games decided by six points or fewer, and have won three games after trailing in the fourth quarter.
“I like the fact that our guys are able respond,” Baldwin said. “And I love the fact that we’ve found a way to win in different ways.”
That’s a comfort zone if ever there was one.