As rain fell intermittently on Roos Field, the Eagles’ first-round playoff game against Northern Iowa had the feel of a Midwestern run-heavy contest that seemed to favor the visiting Panthers.
It wasn’t the sort of high-scoring affair that Eastern Washington has produced so often this season as well as in previous matchups with Northern Iowa.
Yet at the end, it was the Eagles’ defense – not the highly touted Panthers’ – that made more plays, and with a dash of Eric Barriere thrown in, Eastern advanced to the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with a 19-9 victory Saturday in Cheney.
The Eagles (10-2) will play Big Sky rival Montana (9-2) on Friday night in Missoula in the Round of 16.
“The defense played great,” Barriere said. “They’re honestly what kept us in the game.”
The Eagles’ defense still allowed 423 yards, the fifth most it has given up this season. But in key situations, the Eagles got stops, like at the end of the Panthers’ opening 13-play, 93-yard drive.
Facing third-and-11 on that drive, UNI quarterback Theo Day found Isaiah Weston for a 59-yard gain. On third-and-16, Day hit Sam Schnee for a 30-yard gain. Schnee was ruled down at the 1-yard line.
But the Eagles’ defense held on first-and-goal, second-and-goal, and third and fourth as well.
On each of its next 13 third downs, Northern Iowa failed to convert. Of its five fourth-down attempts, it converted twice.
“We were down on the 3-yard line and 1-yard line three times. The first one, you’re on the 1-yard line with four downs to get it in. Get it in,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “We knew we could stop them. We felt good about stopping them, keeping it a low-scoring game.
“As long as you keep them under 20, you should win. But we didn’t perform on offense, and they did a good job on defense.”
The Panthers (6-6) held the Eagles to their lowest scoring output all season, and Eastern’s 5.3 yards-per-play average was its second lowest of the year.
Eastern also punted five times and had its trouble scoring in the red zone: Jackson Cleaver missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter, and Dennis Merritt came up 1 yard short on a fourth-and-2 in the second quarter at the UNI 16-yard line.
Those missed opportunities – Cleaver also missed an extra point, prompting Aaron Best to turn to freshman Wyatt Hawkins for kicks the rest of the game – left the Eagles with a 9-7 halftime lead.
After halftime, the Eagles’ defense didn’t allow any points, the lone two coming on a purposeful safety.
The defense forced three punts, intercepted three passes and twice stopped the Panthers on fourth down.
“Incredible. Brings me back to the snow day of Richmond, shutting them out at home,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said, referring to the only time the Eagles allowed fewer points in the playoffs, a 38-0 victory in 2016.
“Today, looking at it, I’ll take the Eagle D. They were up to the challenge. From the first-and-goal in the first quarter to the pick to end the game,” Best said. “What a phenomenal day for the defense.”
The Eagles’ offense, while not as prolific – the Panthers outgained the Eagles 423-412 – pounded the running game against a defense known for its ability to stop the run.
UNI had allowed just 83.3 rushing yards per game this season, but that didn’t deter Eastern.
“It was very intentional, because we didn’t want it to be all pass, pass, pass,” Barriere said of the Eagles’ run-heavy approach, which netted 129 yards.
“If we (just pass), then that’s easier for the defense. All they’ve got to do is pressure us or just drop everybody off, so we wanted to stick with the run game to make it consistent and make them honest. It probably wasn’t as effective, but at the end of the day they still respected it. They still knew we were going to run the ball.”
The Eagles did run: 44 times. While the Eagles gained an average of only 2.9 yards on those carries, that was enough.
Eastern also converted on 8 of 19 third downs, and Barriere threw just one interception, his only one in the past four games. This one came on a deep pass thrown in the final seconds of the first half, on a second-and-3 from the UNI 46-yard line.
Barriere completed 20 of 34 attempts for a touchdown in the first half to Nolan Ulm, his first collegiate touchdown, and had 283 passing yards.
That bumped Barriere into sixth on the FCS career passing yardage list with 13,279.
Barriere also ran six times for 18 yards, none more crucial than an 18-yard scramble for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Eagles a 16-7 lead.
That came three plays after Keshaun King’s first interception – he had another in the fourth quarter – which he advanced 20 yards to the UNI 27-yard line to set up the Eagles with their best field position of the game.
“It feels really good,” King said. “Our defense, we want to be relied on in big games.”
Up next for Eastern is a rematch with sixth-seeded Montana, which had a bye this weekend after beating Montana State 29-10 in its Big Sky Conference finale.
Eastern beat Montana 34-28 in Cheney on Oct. 2.
“I’m excited,” Barriere said. “It doesn’t get any better than this, playing on a Friday night, against another Big Sky team, against a rival.
“I know Missoula’s gonna be crazy, and I can’t wait.”
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