There’s a chill in the air, which only serves up warm memories of the last cold-weather playoff game in Cheney.
That was the 38-31 quarterfinal win over North Dakota State in 2010, a game that sent Eastern Washington one step closer to the national championship.
To a man, the Eagles are ready to do it again.
“We’d like to make history,” Eastern cornerback T.J. Lee III said of today’s second-round FCS playoff game against South Dakota State.
“We’re ready to battle through adversity.”
There will be plenty of it this afternoon, from the expected 12 degrees at kickoff to the brutal South Dakota State running game. And just like three years ago, the opponent – also from the rugged Missouri Valley Conference – will be unfazed by the weather.
In fact, the Jackrabbits might just strip off a layer or two after hopping a flight Friday morning from Brookings, S.D., where the overnight low was minus-15.
“It will have no impact whatsoever,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said of the weather, preferring to focus on the Eagles’ ability to warm-up for the environment of big games.
In addition to hosting six playoff games in three previous seasons, the Eagles have “been there, done that” in big road games this year at Oregon State and Montana.
That, and the big-play ability of his offense, may provide the edge Baldwin needs to leap past the Jackrabbits and into a quarterfinal game at home next weekend against either McNeese State or Jacksonville State.
Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams, the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, has blossomed in his redshirt sophomore season, leading the FCS in passing efficiency with a rating of 185.69. Adams has completed 66.4 percent of his passes, for 4,059 yards and 46 touchdowns, while the running game is getting better by the week.
Throw in a defense that’s clamped down on opposing running games in the second half of every game since the beginning of October, and the third-ranked Eagles should win this game and improve to 23-3 on the red turf.
That is until you take a closer look at the Jackrabbits, who have just the ingredients to make this one interesting: a grind-it-up, clock-eating offense that could leave Adams and the offense shivering on the sideline; and a talented defense that ranks fourth in the nation in turnover margin with a plus-12.
“They’re big corn-fed boys, so we’re expecting a dogfight,” Eastern defensive tackle Dylan Zylstra said of the SDSU offensive line, which averages 301 pounds and blocks for Zach Zenner, the leading rusher in FCS with 1,944 yards so far this year.
“He’s the cornerstone of their offense,” Zylstra said of Zenner, who gashed Northern Arizona for 249 yards last week in a first-round playoff game the Jackrabbits won 26-7.
Led by NFL prospect Bryan Witzman at left tackle and usually featuring a two-tight-end set, the SDSU line is powerful yet mobile, and has a preference for going off-tackle for Zenner on the strong side. Junior quarterback Austin Sumner completes just 58.2 percent of his passes, but has tossed only eight interceptions. He’s also mobile enough to keep defenses guessing.
SDSU also is among the least-penalized teams in FCS, with 57 flags for 533 yards in 13 games.
In other words, the Jackrabbits don’t make many mistakes, and make opponents pay dearly for theirs. SDSU has made 22 interceptions, including a game-turner just before halftime at NAU. Trailing 7-0 and with NAU driving again, a ball was batted at the line and intercepted. One play later, Zenner went 87 yards for the tying score.
The Jackrabbits defense is slightly undersized on the line – the starters average only 253 pounds. – but Baldwin said he’s impressed by their team speed and gang-tackling.
“They get a lot of hats on the ball,” Baldwin said.