As strange as Eastern Washington’s spring football season has been, its first-round Football Championship Subdivision playoff pairing was appropriate.
The Eagles will travel to FCS juggernaut North Dakota State on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Fargodome in a rematch of the 2018 national title game.
The 16-team playoff bracket was announced on Sunday. The eighth-ranked Eagles and No. 2 Bison (6-2) earned at-large berths after finishing second in the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences, respectively.
NDSU has won eight of the past nine national titles and the Eagles have been an almost annual contender.
Few might have expected two of the division’s premier programs to meet this early in the playoffs . But considering the rare nature of the truncated spring season, it isn’t a big surprise for EWU coach Aaron Best.
“I expected nothing less,” said Best, who will make his second postseason appearance in four seasons as head coach. “Everyone wanted to know who I thought we would play, would it be at home, or the road, is it going to be regional, but when it gets told to us we’ll all know at the same time.
“It’s absolutely appropriate we’re on the road, going to Fargo in the first round of the playoffs.”
For as regular as EWU has appeared in the playoffs over the past decade, the Eagles’ trip to Fargo will be the program’s first road playoff game since 2009.
When EWU faces NDSU for the fifth time since 2010, it will face a relatively underachieving Bison squad that has forged ahead without some of its primary players who either opted out of the spring season for the NFL draft or entered or transferred to bigger schools last year.
NDSU sophomore quarterback Trey Lance, widely considered to be a first-round draft pick this month, opted out of the spring season after winning the Walter Payton Award as a freshman.
Eric Barriere, EWU’s dynamic senior quarterback, is now aiming for the Walter Payton Award, given to the best offensive player at the FCS level.
Barriere leads an EWU offense that ranks first in the nation in total offense (562 yards per game).
NDSU, which now looks to freshman Cam Miller behind center, is coming off a 27-17 loss to rival South Dakota State on Saturday that ended the Bison’s 32-game home winning streak.
EWU linebacker Ty Graham still expects the same tough, disciplined NDSU program that has established itself as one of the college football’s all-time top dynasties.
“We gotta bring our best ball,” Grahams said. “Because they’re going to take advantage of every time we mess up.”
NDSU beat EWU 38-24 for the FCS national in Frisco, Texas, in January 2019 when Barriere was a sophomore starting quarterback.
The Bison also beat the Eagles 40-13 in 2017 in Cheney and 50-44 in Fargo, North Dakota in 2016, both regular season games.
The Eagles clipped NDSU 38-31 in the FCS quarterfinals in 2010 in Cheney, one of the Bison’s two postseason losses in a decade.
Fans will be allowed to attend Saturday’s game at the Fargodome, which is allowing 25% capacity (roughly 4,600 fans). The game will be broadcast on ESPN 3.