Though any team would prefer to sit and rest for a week entering the playoffs, the Eastern Washington football team at least has the advantage of playing Saturday at home, where it is 15-6 in the playoffs. It might be the last chance the Eagles get to play at home this season, and thus could be the final time quarterback Eric Barriere plays at Roos Field. Northern Iowa will be the latest team to bring a strong defense into Cheney. Here are three parts of Saturday’s game to look at as the Eagles (9-2) and Panthers (6-5) seek to advance in the FCS playoffs:
1. Can the Eagles take an early lead? UNI coach Mark Farley talked this week about how playing against EWU’s offense will be an adjustment, given that the Eagles’ pace and explosiveness are unmatched by any team UNI saw in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. That could give Eastern an opportunity to take an early lead while UNI’s defense acclimates. The Eagles have only trailed after the first quarter once this season – 7-0 at UC Davis, a game they came back to win – and overall they have outscored opponents 140-73 in the first quarter this season. Another wrinkle is that Eastern’s interim offensive coordinator, Pat McCann, was the wide receivers coach at UNI in 2017 and 2018. Farley said that he and McCann exchanged texts earlier in the season and obviously didn’t anticipate facing each other this year. “I’m happy for him, because he always wanted to be the play caller, and we were grooming him that way,” Farley said. “He went out there to get groomed some more and to get back out on the West Coast where he’s from. And now he gets to call a game against us, so I’m sure he’s just as excited as anybody is.” In the past two games with McCann calling plays, Eastern’s offense has averaged 40 points and 531.5 yards per game. The most UNI has allowed in any game this year is 34 points and 455 yards.
2. Who wins the turnover battle? Since turning the ball over three times to Weber State on Oct. 23, the Eagles have gone three games without giving the ball away. They are plus-11 in turnovers on the season, the sixth-best margin in the Football Championship Subdivision. UNI is tied for 16th nationally in that statistic at plus-7, but the Panthers have been more liberal with giveaways (10 more than the Eagles) and also more successful in takeaways (six more than Eastern). Eastern’s defense has been good enough to bail out its offense even during a few dry spells. Aside from the 56 points allowed against Western Illinois, EWU has allowed just two other teams (UNLV and Weber State) to score more than 28 points. Against UNLV and Weber State, the Eagles turned the ball over three times. UNI, on the other hand, has committed at least one turnover in every game this season.
3. Which team’s offense is able to sustain drives? While UNI’s defense has been stingy on third down (its opponents have a 29.2% conversion rate), its offense hasn’t been much better (33.8%). EWU’s defense has been slightly worse than UNI’s in that category (32.9%), but the Eagles’ offense has converted on 51.3% of its third downs, the third-best percentage in the FCS. Last week, Portland State made a concerted effort to draw out its drives, and for a half, that worked: Eastern only ran 21 plays during the first half, which the teams played to a 14-all tie. But aside from that game and the loss to Montana State, when the Eagles ran just 64 plays and finished 3 for 13 on third down, the Eagles have moved the chains consistently. The Panthers, however, haven’t converted on 50% of their third downs in any game this year, and neither have any of their opponents. UNI’s rushing defense, ranked seventh nationally in yards per game, is its strength, so presumably Eastern will need to rely on its high-flying passing game to move the chains by gaining yards in big – and, likely, small – chunks if it is to advance and earn a rematch with Montana the following week in Missoula.
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