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Sports >  EWU football

Eric Barriere’s Walter Payton Award hopes could hinge on Saturday’s playoff game at North Dakota State

April 22, 2021 Updated Thu., April 22, 2021 at 9:56 p.m.

Eric Barriere was among the top Football Championship Subdivision quarterbacks entering a fall 2020 season that was ultimately postponed, truncated and played in a rare winter/spring setting.

When more than 30 FCS teams opted out – and with bona fide quarterbacks like North Dakota State’s Trey Lance skipping the season for the NFL draft and Jacksonville State’s Zerrick Cooper out with an injury – it appeared Barriere may be the best remaining offensive player in the country.

EWU’s dual-threat senior was recently named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the top offensive player at the FCS level. He finished fifth in voting his prepandemic junior year.

EWU head coach Aaron Best believes absolutely in his team captain.

“Eric Barriere is the best player in America,” Best said after a recent press conference. “He is the most dynamic player at this level and we’ve known that for some time.”

He can prove it to everyone else on Saturday.

Barriere, who was named the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year after totaling 2,189 passing yards and 18 touchdowns in six games, could make his strongest case for the award when he faces North Dakota State in the Fargodome in the first round of the FCS playoffs.

Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. PST and streamed on ESPN 3.

The eighth-ranked Eagles (5-1) open the FCS playoffs on the road against a sixth-ranked Bison team still rated among the best despite losing most of its primary talent to the transfer portal or next week’s NFL draft.

EWU, which leads the nation in total offense (562 yards per game) behind the arm and legs of Barriere, faces a defense that’s relatively down compared to recent years in the tradition-rich Missouri Valley Conference, which had one just team (Indiana State) opt out of the spring season.

The 13-team Big Sky Conference played without five teams this season, including 2019 playoff qualifiers Montana, Montana State and Sacramento State. Portland State and Northern Colorado also opted out; Cal Poly called it quits after playing three games.

Barriere didn’t face Big Sky power Weber State this year, either.

The Wildcats went 6-0 to earn an automatic bid into the 16-team playoff bracket, which typically has 24 teams in a normal year. EWU earned an at-large berth.

While Barriere has proven himself against capable teams throughout his career – he helped the Eagles reach the 2018 FCS title game, a 38-24 loss to NDSU – he faced mostly average and below-average teams this spring.

Barriere was brilliant (436 total yards, three touchdowns) in a 32-22 road win over a ranked UC Davis team (3-2) that didn’t make the playoffs. But the rest of the Eagles’ wins came against Northern Arizona (3-2), Idaho State (2-4), Idaho (2-4) and Cal Poly (0-3).

EWU played Idaho twice, losing to the Vandals 28-21 in February in Moscow before coming from behind in Cheney to win 38-31. Barriere completed just 18 of 38 passes in the win.

The Bison went 3-1 against ranked teams this spring, losing 27-17 to rival and No. 1 playoff seed South Dakota State in a game that was tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter.

NDSU coach Matt Entz knows the Bison can’t let Barriere break containment.

“We’re going to have to do a great job of forcing him to stay in the pocket,” Entz said.

“There is a significant difference in his completion percentage when you force him to stay in there and get uncomfortable than if you let him scramble out there and extend a play.”

Even though NDSU isn’t as punishing on defense as it normally is, EWU still likely hasn’t faced a team as well-coached as the Bison, who give up 303 yards a game.

Saturday is the litmus test for Barriere, who has completed 166 of 268 passes (62%) and averages 22 yards a game rushing, less damage on the ground than in his previous years.

As a sophomore, Barriere faced a stout NDSU team in the 2018 title game. He completed 13 of 25 passes for 198 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns through the air. He rushed for 10 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.

If the All-American plays well – win or lose Saturday – he still may win the Walter Payton Award, earned by previous EWU greats such as receiver Cooper Kupp and quarterbacks Bo Levi Mitchell and Erik Meyer. Vernon Adams and Gage Gubrud, both quarterbacks, were finalists.

A subpar showing against EWU’s most legitimate competition this season may swing voters in a different direction.

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