Eastern grateful to be home for playoff opener
Ten days after it was earned, Evan Cook appreciated the reward of home-field advantage in the upcoming Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
That included Thanksgiving at home, a hard-earned bye week, and the knowledge that the Wagner Seahawks, and not Cook’s Eastern Washington Eagles, will be winging it 2,600 miles across the country after playing a first-round game during the holiday weekend.
“And we have red turf,” joked Cook, a senior defensive tackle, before running onto chilly Roos Field for practice.
The 9-2 Eagles are also the No. 2 seed in the FCS field, just won a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and have plenty of veterans who helped Eastern win the national title two years ago.
None of that, not even the red turf, will matter Saturday, when Eastern faces a team that’s won nine straight games and overcome a hurricane in the process.
“It’s a playoff game, it’s one and done, so we have to play like it’s our last game,” Eastern running back Demitrius Bronson said.
Past playoff experience helps, said head coach Beau Baldwin, who added that “we don’t talk about it that much, because this is a different team with a lot of players who weren’t on that team. But I do feel like we have a lot of pieces in place.”
Baldwin and the players were businesslike Tuesday as they prepared for a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since Wagner was a Division II school in 1978.
“Our whole mindset is to win the whole thing,” Baldwin said. “But we have to understand the process to get there.”
For the defense, that means facing a read-option team that is unlike anything the Eagles have faced this year.
“They look really well-coached, a really smart team,” safety Jordan Tonani said.
Offensively, Baldwin said he was impressed with Wagner senior quarterback Nick Doscher, a first-team all-Northeast Conference selection who’s completed 120 of 220 passes for 1,669 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception. Doscher has run for 529 yards and five TDs.
“They have a lot of read concepts, where we have to be 100 percent locked in or they’ll beat us,” Tonani said.
The NEC co-champion Seahawks rarely beat themselves, ranking eighth in FCS with a plus-8 turnover margin. They forced five turnovers in a 31-20 first-round win over Colgate that punched their ticket to Cheney. That same Colgate team was ranked second in FCS in total offense with 503.7 yards a game, but was held to 296 last week at Wagner.
The Seahawks rank sixth in FCS in scoring defense, yielding 16.6 points a game.
“They’re solid and they do a lot of things well,” Bronson said. “They’re a disciplined defense, and they try to strip the ball.”
Eastern has never played Wagner, which joined the FCS ranks in 1992. Seahawks coach Walt Hameline, in his 32nd year at the school, is the NEC Coach of the Year.
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