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Sports >  EWU football

‘We’re playing this Saturday, and I love that’: Eastern Washington eager to test itself against sturdy Northern Iowa defense in FCS Playoffs

Nov. 26, 2021 Updated Fri., Nov. 26, 2021 at 6:23 p.m.

Eastern Washington Eagles wide receiver Freddie Roberson (11) runs the ball during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Nov 6, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. Montana State won the game 23-20.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington Eagles wide receiver Freddie Roberson (11) runs the ball during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Nov 6, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. Montana State won the game 23-20. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

As much as Brock Harrison would have liked for the Eastern Washington football team to receive a first-round bye in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the process can’t be altered.

Now it’s on to playing Northern Iowa.

“It’s just behind us now that we’re not a top-eight seed,” Harrison, the Eagles’ redshirt freshman defensive end, said on Tuesday.

“The selection’s already done. So you’ve just got to look past it. It doesn’t matter if you’re seeded or not. A nonseeded team always has a chance to win the whole thing, and I think we definitely have a chance of doing that.”

That is the task before the Eagles (9-2), who, for what it’s worth, are ranked No. 4 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 this week. The Panthers are unranked but received the 26th-most votes. The teams will meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney.

Even though they won’t get to rest up as much as their potential second-round foe, Montana, redshirt freshman receiver Efton Chism III pointed out one upside for the Eagles.

“We’re playing this Saturday,” he said, “and I love that, and I’ll take that.”

Their rival is one of six teams from the Missouri Valley Conference to make the 24-team playoff field and presumably was one of the final at-large bids, considering its 6-5 record.

But the Panthers beat three playoff teams this year: the MVFC’s South Dakota State (26-17) and Southern Illinois (23-16), and Big Sky champion Sacramento State, 34-16 in September.

Though the Eagles didn’t play Sacramento State this year, they and the Panthers do have one common opponent in Western Illinois. The Panthers ended their season by beating the Leathernecks 44-3, while the Eagles outlasted them 62-56 in a nonconference game in September.

Panthers coach Mark Farley said that he thought it was important that his team won by a wide margin Saturday.

“I felt that we had to play well, and we had to not just win but win in a way against Western Illinois that was decisive,” Farley said during his media availability this week.

“And that you look like a playoff football team, because that’s what you want to present in that room when (the selection committee) is watching, and we did that.”

Northern Iowa relies on its defense in a manner similar to Big Sky teams like Montana, Montana State and Weber State. Statistically, the Panthers are right on par with those defenses as far as yards allowed per game (295.6), yards allowed per play (4.3) and points allowed per game (17.9). If UNI were ranked among the Big Sky teams, it would have landed among the top four in all of those categories.

The Panthers also play at a pace similar to those teams, if not slower. UNI ran fewer plays this season (696) than any Big Sky team.

EWU ran more plays (869) than any Missouri Valley team.

So again, the Eagles are faced with a clash of styles as they were in previous matchups with Montana, Montana State and Weber State, against which they went 1-2 with the two losses – both at home – by a total of four points.

“Situational football helps,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said. “If you haven’t been there, what do you rely upon? At that point, you go back to your habits. Well, maybe we’ve created better habits because of the situations that we’ve been in.”

Farley said the difference in pace is something the Panthers will need time to adjust to, as their defense hasn’t faced – nor can its scout-team simulate in practice – an offense like Eastern’s.

“It’s spread, wide-open, high-speed football,” Farley said. “I can’t simulate it, so they’re going to have to, in those first few series, get the speed of the game and the tempo of the game down, and then they’ll be fine. But it will take time to get acquainted with that. I can tell them, but they won’t understand it until it happens to them.”

UNI’s defense, though, has been tough this year, particularly against the run. It has allowed just 83.3 rushing yards per game at a clip of 2.5 per play, similar figures to Montana (75.1 and 2.2). The Panthers also have 34 sacks this season – more than any Big Sky team except Montana (39) – and their defensive third-down conversion rate (29.2) would have ranked second in the Big Sky behind Weber State.

Eastern will be playing a team similar to Weber State (6-5), which, had it defeated Portland State late in the season, might have been in the playoff field at the expense of Northern Iowa.

Best was asked Tuesday about a series of elements that could impact the game: weather, playoff experience, playing a difficult conference schedule. All of which he said were more “variables” than “factors.”

But one advantage he and Farley acknowledged was that of having the home field, not so much because of the particular setting at Roos Field but because the Eagles won’t need to travel.

They will get to sleep in their own beds and won’t be flying the week of a major holiday.

In some ways, too, Best said, it might not be so bad to just keep playing without taking a week off.

“(Sometimes) we’re a little sluggish after the Thanksgiving weekend,” Best said, “so there could be some positives out of this, too, as far as staying in the structured element of the organization, playing on Saturday, and then seeing where we go from there.”

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