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Eagles face Youngstown St. with title game berth on the line

Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud will face difficult conditions Saturday against Youngstown State. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud will face difficult conditions Saturday against Youngstown State. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

At some point Saturday afternoon, Eastern Washington football fans will stop talking about the weather and enjoy the heat of the moment.

After all, a game this big should send a shiver down your spine, no matter whether it’s 6 degrees or 106.

For the fourth time in seven years, the Eagles are at home with a chance to play for the FCS national title, and the Youngstown State Penguins are in the way.

So is the past. The Eagles went all the way in 2010 after a semifinal win over Villanova but fell short on two occasions since.

In particular, the gut-wrenching finish against Towson in 2013 still haunts the Eastern seniors, who watched as a 10-point lead evaporated in the last six minutes – along with a trip to Frisco, Texas, for the title game.

However, no one was talking about that as the second-seeded Eagles (12-1) prepared for YSU. By all accounts, this is a different team – more complete, more focused.

And certainly not hung up on the weather forecast, which calls for 6 degrees at kickoff and zero by game’s end, when the Eagles hope to be celebrating a trip to the FCS finals against James Madison. On Friday night, James Madison defeated five-time defending champion North Dakota State 27-17.

“Once you get your blood flowing and stay moving, it’s not too hard to stay warm,” senior captain and safety Zach Bruce said.

And focus on the task. For the Eastern defense, that means stopping the methodical, clock-milking offense that’s carried No. 13 Youngstown State to five straight wins and a chance to get back to the title game for the first time since 2001.

Senior tailback Jody Webb is coming off a career-best 213 yards in the quarterfinal win over Wofford and also is dangerous on kickoff returns.

Quarterback Hunter Wells, a junior, completed 11 of his final 16 passes against the Terriers. Half a dozen Penguins have double-digit receptions, led by Alvin Bailey (34 catches for 371 yards and four touchdowns.)

The marquee matchup figures to be EWU’s offense – the top passing outfit in the nation all season – against a YSU defense that ranks seventh in the FCS in points (18.1) and 11th in total yards (313.5).

Eastern counters with mobile quarterback Gage Gubrud, who leads the FCS 4,822 passing yards, is second with 45 touchdowns and third in completion percentage at 68.5. Receivers Cooper Kupp, Shaq Hill and Kendrick Bourne have eclipsed 1,000 yards in receptions.

“Our defense has been challenged this way before against a number of teams that throw the ball and spread you out,” YSU coach Bo Pelini said. “These guys post some different challenges here and there and are unique in certain ways. It’s about getting a good plan together.”

That may be more difficult if reports are true about the suspension of at least four players after they tested positive after a second-round win at Jacksonville State.


Eastern is 1-3 in FCS semifinals … The teams have one common opponent this year in North Dakota State. The Eagles lost at NDSU 50-44 in overtime on Sept. 10. The Penguins fell in Fargo 24-3 on Nov. 5. … This is YSU’s first game in the Pacific Time Zone since 2001 at Cal Poly. … YSU is 9-5 in road playoff games … The Penguins (11-3), the only unseeded team still alive, are in the postseason for the first time since 2006. … YSU won national titles in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1997 and is 28-7 in the postseason. EWU is 16-10.

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