One thing for sure: Someone is getting a return trip to the FCS title game.
Saturday’s semifinal will either give Sam Houston State a chance to atone for last season’s defeat in the title game or provide Eastern Washington’s program the validation that only comes with repeated success at the national level.
Some say Eastern has already done that: In five years, the Eagles have won 44 games – tied for third-most in FCS – set a national standard with their sophisticated passing offense and took home the big prize in 2010.
And that, as they say, is why they play the game.
“It’s a lot fun and it takes a lot of work,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “But it all goes into moments like this.”
A big crowd at Roos Field will hope the Eagles can overcome one more obstacle on the way to a return to Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 5 and a date with defending champ North Dakota State, which defeated Georgia Southern 23-20 Friday night.
Saturday afternoon, the Eagles will match that passing game against an aggressive man-to-man defense that has carried Sam Houston State to nine wins in its last 10 games.
They will face a Bearkats offense that ranks second in the nation in scoring at 42 points a game and owns back-to-back playoff victories over Big Sky Conference teams Cal Poly and Montana State.
“But they haven’t played us,” said Eastern defensive end Jerry Ceja, one of 19 seniors who would dearly like to cap their careers with a second national title in three years.
This year’s team has followed the same path as the 2010 squad. Eleven wins, a Big Sky title, big receivers making bigger plays all season long, the defense making plays when it counts.
Ceja, the Eagles’ sack leader this year with 12, sees few differences. “But I would say we might be a little more focused, with a little more cohesion as an entire team. We’re more than a team, we’re a family.”
Those bonds never frayed despite a spate of midseason injuries at all positions on defense; they seemed even tighter through all the close wins, six of them by a touchdown or less.
Even a loss at Southern Utah that cost them a No.1 ranking now seems a blessing. Since Oct. 26, the Eagles have won five straight en route to earning the No. 2 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“Having the home crowd is huge,” Eagles safety Allen Brown said.
That alone may not carry them past a Sam Houston State team that faced adversity back in September and hasn’t looked back.
In their Southland Conference opener at Central Arkansas, the Bearkats gave up two touchdowns in the last two minutes, losing 24-20 and putting themselves in one-and-done mode ever since.
“It was when we lost that game that we showed we can be beaten,” said two-time All-American safety Darnell Taylor. “That changed things around for us.”
Since then, the Bearkats (10-3) have lost only a nonconference game to Texas A&M and eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. They’ve played just three games at three games at home all season – not that it’s mattered.
Last week, they shrugged off the freezing temperatures in Montana with an impromptu snowball fight at their hotel before flattening Montana State, 34-16 in one of the Bearkats’ best games of the season.
Cold weather beckons again Saturday in Cheney, but doesn’t seem to faze the Bearkats.
“I don’t really like it,” Taylor said. “But it’s going to be OK if we can get back to Frisco.”
That’s been their solitary goal in the 11 months since a 17-6 loss to North Dakota State in the title game.
The same goes for the Eagles.
“A hundred other teams would like to be in our shoes,” said quarterback Kyle Padron.
The teams will meet again next year in Huntsville, Texas, in the first of a home-and-home series that will conclude in 2014 in Cheney. … Eastern has reached the playoffs nine times, while the Bearkats have appeared on six occasions. … The schools’ only previous meeting was in an FCS quarterfinal game at Cheney in 2004, when Sam Houston State rallied from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 35-34. … In November and beyond, Eastern is 13-0 since 2010 and 22-3 since 2007. … The Eagles are 7-0 this year at Roos Field and 17-2 at home since the red turf was installed before the 2010 season.