FRISCO, Texas – Eastern Washington wasn’t expected to win a Big Sky Conference title – let alone reach the FCS national championship game – when its most recognizable figure, All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud, suffered a season-ending injury in late September.
When about a dozen other starters went down with various ailments in the following weeks, many wondered if EWU could endure such losses in the arduous postseason, where even some of EWU’s best teams hit a roadblock.
Compounding those injuries was the Dec. 9 assault arrest of the Big Sky Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, Jay-Tee Tiuli, a dominating nose tackle who was subsequently suspended for the FCS semifinal game against Maine.
Second-year head coach Aaron Best’s squad has faced doom-and-gloom scenarios all season without flinching.
That resolve has the Eagles playing for their second national title in school history.
Now EWU (12-2) is faced with its most challenging task yet: Upsetting top-ranked North Dakota State (14-0) in Saturday’s FCS title game at Toyota Stadium.
The heavily favored Bison, winners of six of the last seven national championships, have arguably the best team in the division’s history, one that rolled through the playoffs by a combined score of 131-31.
In a season in which the odds were often stacked against it, EWU is relishing the challenge.
All-American center Spencer Blackburn wore a T-shirt on Friday with the initials DMGB, an acronym for its approach to a season with unexpected curveballs – Doesn’t matter, get better.
“We love it. We know that we’re the underdog coming in,” EWU cornerback Josh Lewis said. “But between those four walls in the locker room, we have belief. We know what we’re capable of and we’re all on the same page. We’re a tough team to stop. So underdog or not, we’ll give it our all and show everyone what we’re about.”
Best, an offensive line coach when EWU beat Delaware 20-19 in the 2010 title game, believes his team has the means to shock the college football world.
A runner-up trophy isn’t on his agenda.
“We’re not OK to be here,” Best said. “And that would be no matter who the opponent is, as good as North Dakota State has been over the last decade, we’re not just OK to be here.”
Led by sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere and a decorated offensive line, EWU brings a physical, balanced offense to Frisco, ranking second in the country in points (44.5 ppg) and total offense, averaging 263 yards on the ground and 277 through the air.
Running back Sam McPherson (1,352 yards) spearheads a running game that set a EWU single-season rushing record (3,682 yards).
The senior-laden Eagles have one of the better defensive units in program history, ranking second in forced turnovers (32) and first in defensive touchdowns (six). In Big Sky play, the Eagles had the best scoring defense (16.8 ppg).
Last season in Cheney, NDSU rolled EWU 40-13, and most of the players from the rout will play Saturday.
NDSU quarterback Easton Stick, the winningest QB in FCS history (48-3), knows this is a much different EWU team.
“I think they’re better on defense than they were a year ago,” Stick said. “They’re more physical. And have more experience, I think, especially at the corner position. They’ve got three really good players. Rotate a bunch of guys at the defensive line at all spots.
“So I think the depth is really good. They’ve got good schemes and do a good job of fooling people. And so we’re going to have to play hard and execute and hopefully that gives us a good chance.”
NDSU is loaded at every position group and ranks in the top 10 in most FCS statistical categories on offense and defense.
As in previous championship seasons, NDSU prides itself in its run game (285 yards per game) and defense (11.8 points allowed per game), two of the country’s elite units.
But what often separates NDSU from the it opposition is its lack of mistakes. The Bison have coughed up only nine turnovers this season.
In the rare instance the Bison give up a big play, they often atone on the same drive. NDSU leads the country in red-zone defense, surrendering seven touchdowns in 22 red-zone attempts.
“The Bison defense tackles well,” Best said. “You can tell that’s a defensive coach coaching as a head football coach. They tackle well.
“The one thing we must do is tackle well. You’ve got to find a way to bring people to the ground. So dynamic plays a lot of times aren’t people wide open, and it’s not necessarily outscheming somebody, because when you get to this stage, you might get a play, but you’re not going to outscheme someone six or eight or 10 times. You’re probably not in this position. It’s about players making individual plays based on the play call that’s made by the coordinator.”
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