Eastern Washington will play again at Roos Field this season, though a week sooner than the Eagles had hoped.
When the seeds for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs were announced Sunday morning, three Big Sky teams were among the programs listed, but Eastern wasn’t one of them.
That was despite being ranked fifth in the most recent Stats Perform FCS poll and sporting a 9-2 overall record that included a victory over a Bowl Subdivision team, as well as a 6-2 record in conference play.
Instead, the Eagles will host Northern Iowa in the first round at 1 p.m. Saturday in Cheney.
“There’s no time to reflect on what just took place. It’s laid out,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said. “We know the journey that we must travel, and therefore we’ll go attack it.”
UNI went 6-5 in the regular season and 4-4 in the Missouri Valley Conference – which landed six teams in the 24-team playoff field – and beat South Dakota State (8-3), Southern Illinois (7-4) and Sacramento State (9-2), which went 8-0 in the Big Sky to win the conference title.
The strength of those victories was enough for the Panthers to earn a spot despite their 6-5 record, something that Weber State, which also went 6-5 overall, wasn’t able to overcome.
The winner of the EWU/UNI game will play at No. 6-seed Montana (9-2, 6-2) on Friday, Dec. 3.
The Grizzlies beat Montana State (9-2, 7-1) on Saturday, knocking the Bobcats down to a No. 8 seed opposite No. 1 Sam Houston.
“I feel like personally, we got snubbed,” Eagles senior receiver Talolo Limu-Jones said. “I feel like Montana State deserved (a seed), and Montana I feel like didn’t deserve (a seed). So I’m kind of glad we’re in the same bracket as them, so if we win this week we’ll get to see them.”
Sacramento State is the No. 4 seed and awaits the winner of South Dakota State and UC Davis (8-3, 5-3), the final at-large selection from the Big Sky. On Saturday, the Hornets beat the Aggies 27-7 in the Causeway Classic.
Opposite Montana is No. 3 seed James Madison, a 10-1 team from the Colonial Athletic Association. JMU’s lone loss came against No. 5 seed Villanova (9-2, 7-1 CAA).
Not getting a seed was certainly a disappointment for the Eagles, who won their final two games, both on the road, after losing at home to Weber State and Montana State.
But the Grizzlies’ victory over the Bobcats likely cost the Eagles a bye: Had the Bobcats won, the Grizzlies – with an FBS win of their own, over Washington – would still have made the playoff field but not as a seeded team.
Still, Eastern is in the playoffs for the third time in Best’s five years as head coach, and a potential rematch with Montana means it wouldn’t need to travel far to play a team the Eagles already beat earlier this season in Cheney, 34-28.
But the regular season resumes get tossed out the window now, Best said, and instead the Eagles will begin work on their playoff resume.
That starts by setting out to beat UNI this week.
“You’ve got to win them all in the postseason,” Best said, “no matter where you start.”
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