Maine’s defense earned its “The Black Hole” moniker by putting offensive linemen on roller skates and disrupting backfields.
It held high-powered Jacksonville State to 86 yards rushing in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
It embarrassed Weber State in the quarterfinals, holding to Wildcats to negative yards on the ground.
But Eastern Washington’s veteran offensive front wasn’t fazed in Saturday’s semifinal by Maine, which came to Cheney leading the country in run defense and was second in sacks.
The Eagles didn’t yield a sack in their 50-19 throttling of the Black Bears, allowing sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere to operate an offense that totaled 568 yards.
Offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder used the pass to open up the run game, which managed 217 yards, the most rushing yards Maine has given up this season.
Maine, 7-0 against ranked teams this season before the blowout loss, was the team getting pushed backward this time.
“Their defensive line has great athletes, but I think we ended up being in better shape,” EWU right guard Kaleb Levao said. “As the game went on our protection got better and we stuck to the game plan.”
Fourth-quarter dominance has been a trend for EWU, outscoring opponents 124-17 in the final quarter.
Levao was quick to credit the skill players.
“A lot of that is on our quarterback,” Levao said. “We have very versatile backs, who are very involved in protection. We had a good game plan.
“Everyone was on the same page and we have a lot of experience up front.”
Barriere pointed to the big bodies up front.
“Our offensive line came out here and did great today because they knew they had a tough challenge,” Barriere said.
Big day for Gilder
Montana didn’t make the FCS playoffs for the third time in four seasons. Montana State went down in the second round.
The state’s usually solid NAIA football teams often make deep postseason runs but were eliminated early this year.
EWU tight end Jayce Gilder represented Montana, though.
Gilder hauled in two touchdown passes and a 2-point conversion, the third multi-touchdown game of his career.
“It’s pretty incredible,” said Gilder, who wasn’t recruited by Montana or Montana State. “Just looking back four years ago, I never thought I’d be in this position.”
Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year Jay-Tee Tuili didn’t suit up for his team’s FCS semifinal with Maine because a violation of team rules, EWU coach Aaron Best said.
Best immediately addressed the media of the suspension following the win, but wouldn’t give specifics.
“I’m going to say it one time and one time only, zero questions after that – he was not available today due to a violation of team rules,” Best said.
“We talked during the week, and this isn’t a one-man band, this is a team effort. We have team rules enforced. I’m not at liberty to talk about the situation or circumstance.”
Juggernaut on deck
If Eastern Washington wants its second FCS national title, it will have to get through a North Dakota State team that’s enjoying one of the best dynasties in the division’s history.
The top-ranked Bison (14-0) have won seven of the past eight FCS national titles and have beaten EWU their past two meetings, 50-44 in overtime in Fargo in 2016 and 40-13 in Cheney in 2017.
EWU beat North Dakota State 38-31 in overtime in the 2010 FCS quarterfinals.
NDSU has outscored its playoff opponents 131-31 this season.
Bison coach Chris Klieman accepted the same position at Kansas State last week but will coach NDSU in the national title game.
EWU linebacker Ketner Kupp said he is looking forward to the challenge.
“We’re excited. They set the bar high, and we’re excited to go and take them on,” Kupp said.
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