The Eastern Washington football players have reason to feel confident today. And then some.
On tap today at Roos Field is a second-round FCS playoff game against a postseason newcomer who’s traveled 2,600 miles and scores only 22 points a game while competing in one of the most lightly-regarded conferences in the country.
But look a bit closer – and the Eastern coaches have done so – and you’ll see a Wagner College team that has all the ingredients for pulling off the improbable:
The Seahawks are the hottest team in FCS, winning nine straight games while turning over the ball just five times in the process, rank sixth in the nation in scoring defense and lost by just four points at FBS member Florida Atlantic.
And the New York-based Seahawks did all that while dealing with the ravages of Hurricane Sandy.
“Overconfidence, there’s no fear of that for us,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “You don’t take anyone lightly when there are just 16 teams left. We have to play our best football.”
On defense, that means slowing down a clock-hogging, zone-read offense that is unlike anything the second-seeded Eagles have seen this season. “It’s a little bit Cal Poly and a little bit Montana,” said Baldwin of the Big Sky Conference’s two most run-oriented teams.
“It’ll be interesting to see how much they’ll adjust to our type of offense because I think they face a lot of passing teams,” said Wagner running back Dominique Williams, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound junior who’s rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 TDs while averaging 5.1 yards a carry for the Seahawks.
Wagner’s offensive approach is to chew up yards and keep the opposing offense off the field; the Seahawks average 34 minutes of possession time.
“It’s just like anything else, watching film and having an idea of what coverages to expect,” said Wagner senior quarterback Nick Doscher. “Teams will give you different looks and if you understand what the defense wants to do, you have a better idea of when to take a chance and when to be a little more conservative.
“But we’re going to have to play mistake-free football just to be in the game with them.”
Defensively, the Seahawks excel at forcing turnovers – they had five in a 31-20 win over Colgate in a first-round game last weekend.
That got the attention of Eastern running back Demitrius Bronson.
“They’re solid; they remind me a lot of what Cal Poly does, and they try to strip the ball,” Bronson said.
“We have to keep the ball high and tight,” said quarterback Kyle Padron.
The Wagner defense includes several FBS transfers. Defensive backs Jarrett Dieudonne and Tony Jones originally signed with Purdue and Penn State, respectively; linebacker and second-leading tackler Mike Lombardo is a transfer from Arkansas State.
“You don’t win nine straight games by accident,” said Baldwin. “They are very physical and athletic … probably a little stronger on defense in terms of their numbers, but I think that’s a little skewed too, because their offense kind of plays to what their defensive strengths are.”
Wagner’s win over Colgate was the first playoff win in Northeast Conference history. … Wagner has one of the top defenses in FCS, ranking sixth in scoring defense (16.6), 11th in passing defense (164.9), 15th in total defense (312.5), and 49th in rushing defense (147.6).
Third-seeded Montana State (10-1) faces at-large opponent Stony Brook (10-2). MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee, the Big Sky’s Offensive MVP, has thrown for 2,726 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. Story Brook ranks fifth in FCS in total defense, giving up just 294.7 yards a game. That winner will face either Sam Houston State (8-3) or Big Sky newcomer Cal Poly (9-2), who meet today in Huntsville, Texas.