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Eastern opens playoffs against prolific offense

Comparisons can sometimes be a bit unsettling.

Take, for instance, those made by Eastern Washington’s coaches and players when asked about Stephen F. Austin, today’s first-round foe in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“They’re very similar to Texas Tech,” EWU defensive coordinator John Graham said of the Lumberjacks (9-2), who will provide the opposition for the Eagles (8-3) when the two teams kick it off at noon at Homer Bryce Stadium in Nacogdoches, Texas.

“They remind me a lot of Northern Arizona,” added senior linebacker Makai Borden.

Neither comparison probably sits comfortably with EWU fans – especially those who remember Tech rolling up 639 yards and posting a 49-24 win over the Eagles in last year’s season opener, and NAU amassing a remarkable 747 yards in a hard-to-fathom 49-45 home loss to Eastern last weekend.

But Graham insists both are well-founded, noting SFA uses the same kind of spread passing game as Texas Tech, while trying to keep its attack as balanced Northern Arizona’s.

“They use a lot of shotgun, four-receiver sets to spread you out, and then they throw it to different spots on the field, get the ball to their athletes in space and simply let them work,” Graham said of the ’Jacks, who rank No. 1 nationally in passing yardage (346.1 yards per game) and No. 3 in total offense (477.6 ypg), while also leading the country in scoring with an average of 37.2 points per game.

“Their quarterback is more than adequate, and they have excellent speed at receiver, where a couple of their kids are bigger-type receivers on the outside. They didn’t put up the kind of offensive numbers they did by mistake. They’re the real deal.”

The Lumberjacks, who shared this year’s Southland Conference title with McNeese State, are paced offensively by quarterback Jeremy Moses, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, who has thrown for 3,488 yards and 36 touchdowns. The two-year letterwinner has completed 67.5 percent of his passes (320-474) and thrown 14 interceptions.

Moses’ favorite target has been senior wideout Duane Brooks, who has caught 95 passes for 898 yards and six touchdowns. But three other SFA receivers – senior Aaron Rhea, senior Contrevious Parks and freshman Graylyn Crawford – have combined for 142 receptions and 23 touchdowns, and are all averaging more than 10 yards per catch.

“Their offense is really similar to NAU’s,” Borden said, “so it’s going to be good to have seen that (last Saturday) coming into this. It’s not going to be anything new – no surprises, and that should be beneficial to us.

“It’s going to be good not playing a pro-I, two-back running team, because we don’t have to switch modes from last weekend.”

SFA, which is 5-0 at home, played only four teams – Southern Methodist (6-5), McNeese State (9-2), Texas State (7-4) and Southeastern Louisiana (6-5) – with winning records during the regular season and lost at SMU (31-23) and Texas State (28-7). Three of its wins came against teams – Texas College (0-11), Western Illinois (1-10) and Northwestern State (0-11) – with a combined record of 1-32, and the Lumberjacks’ most prolific offensive effort came in a 92-0 win over Texas College, an NAIA school.

Eastern, meanwhile, made its way to the playoffs while facing one of the most difficult FCS schedules in the country. And the Eagles have some impressive offensive weapons of their own, including senior quarterback Matt Nichols, the Big Sky Conference’s offensive MVP, and sophomore running back Taiwan Jones, another first-team all-league performer, who rushed for 1,095 yards and 14 touchdowns during the regular season.

“When you think of the Big Sky Conference, you think of great quarterbacks, and Matt Nichols is one of those great quarterbacks,” SFA head coach J.C. Harper said of Nichols, a four-year starter, who completed 66.8 percent (255 of 382) of his passes for 3,369 yards and 30 touchdowns, while throwing just five interceptions.

“He leads a very explosive offense. They have tremendously talented players at every position. This will be a tough game. I’m just happy we get to play it in front of our fans.”

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