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Eastern Washington University Football

FCS Playoffs: Five things Eastern Washington will need to do to upset North Dakota State in Fargo

North Dakota State hasn’t lost back-to-back games or fallen to Eastern Washington since 2010, a trend EWU looks to change on Saturday.

The Bison have won eight of the past nine Football Championship Subdivision titles, beaten EWU in their past three meetings and established themselves as one of college football’s all-time greatest dynasties.

But sixth-ranked NDSU (6-2), which hosts the eighth-ranked Eagles (5-1) on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs in the Fargodome, has appeared relatively vulnerable in a shortened, coronavirus-delayed winter/spring season, earning the Missouri Valley Conference’s second berth into the abbreviated FCS playoffs.

Much of that has to do with losing key players from a team that won its previous FCS crown in January 2020, including several who entered the NCAA transfer portal or skipped this spring to enter the NFL draft.

When Walter Payton Award winner and star NDSU quarterback Trey Lance opted out of the spring season in anticipation of a first-round selection next week, it dealt the biggest blow to the Bison.

EWU, which finished second in a Big Sky Conference that saw five teams opt out, has lost three defensive starters to the transfer portal and had its share of injuries, too.

But if the Eagles, who fell 38-24 in the 2018 FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas, were to hand NDSU a rare home playoff loss, this would be the Cheney school’s best shot in more than a decade.

NDSU fell to rival and No. 1 playoff seed South Dakota State 27-17 last week in Fargo in a regular-season finale.

Behind the arm and legs of quarterback and Walter Payton Award finalist Eric Barriere, EWU brings the nation’s top-ranked offense (562 yards per game) to the Fargodome, which will allow a max capacity of roughly 4,600 fans due to local restrictions.

Here are five things EWU will need to in the first-round playoff game Saturday to upset a mortal NDSU team that went with a true freshman quarterback Cam Miller last week after senior starter Zeb Noland went down with an injury.

Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. and will be streamed live online at ESPN 3.

Get NDSU’s offense off the field: Miller and Noland aren’t nearly as dynamic as the sensational, NFL-bound quarterbacks the Bison have produced in recent years. The offensive line also isn’t quite as punishing, but NDSU, which is 3-1 against ranked teams this spring, is still efficient and disciplined in the running game (202 yards) behind a stable of running backs. EWU’s run defense has been dealt a series of blows due to transfer-outs and injuries, yielding 278 rushing yards to Idaho last week and 218 yards on the ground to UC Davis the previous week. If the Bison chunk up the field, eat the block and keep EWU’s high-octane offense off the field, it could be a long day for EWU. The Eagles will need to keep the Bison from sustaining several long drives.

Force more turnovers: EWU forced eight turnovers in six games, seven by air (interceptions) and one by ground (fumble recovery). If it wants to keep the ball away from clock-eating NDSU and give its explosive offense more chances to reach the end zone, it will need to try and rattle Miller (one interception) or Noland (six interceptions).

Barriere dicing young secondary: NDSU is expecting Barriere to be more pass-happy than two years ago in the national game, because numbers (2,192 pass yards, 135 rushing yards) suggest that’s true. The Bison’s young secondary has had its hiccups (173 yard a game) against top-tier competition this spring, and likely hasn’t faced a duo as dynamic as Barriere and 6-foot-5 speedster Talolo Limu-Jones (721 receiving yards, four touchdowns). But if the Bison are going to stack up their coverages to try and contain the Eagles’ tall and athletic targets, Barriere may have the opportunity to remind the FCS he is still the most dangerous running quarterback in the country, despite averaging just 22 rushing yards a game.

If NDSU’s leading tackler, James Kaczor, remains out with an injury on Saturday, it may give EWU more incentive to run Barriere or All-Big Sky running back Tamarick Pierce.

No red-zone stalls: While EWU has been mostly efficient in the red zone (20 for 28 on touchdown attempts), it had most of its stalls against the good defenses it faced. NDSU, while not as good as it usually is, still might be the best unit the Eagles have faced and will need to take advantage of every trip down the field in this setting. Being too conservative and deviating from what got the Eagles near the end zone could be problematic. NDSU’s opponents have scored touchdowns on 13 of their 18 red-zone attempts.

Limit mental miscues: NDSU had made a living off its opposition making mental mistakes during its dynasty run. The Eagles struggle in that category, ranking first in the Big Sky in penalties (42) and penalty yards (464). EWU yielded nine turnovers in six games.

Against an NDSU defense that’s forced just five turnovers this spring, EWU will need to play clean football and not cough up the football.