A tumultuous season for FCS programs nationwide culminates with 16 teams — down from the usual 24 — vying to take home the championship crown. The North Dakota State Bison have accomplished that feat in each of the last three seasons — and in eight of the last nine — but the first team standing in their way is the Eastern Washington Eagles, who lost their season opener but enter the playoffs with plenty of momentum on the heels of a five-game winning streak.
Speaking of streaks, Eastern Washington (at 14) now owns the longest active streak in the FCS of consecutive winning seasons with McNeese suffering its first sub-.500 campaign after 15 straight winning seasons. The Eagles closed the regular season with a seven-point win over Idaho, avenging their season-opening loss to the Vandals by the same margin. North Dakota State, meanwhile, saw its stretch of four straight wins — and nine straight conference championships — come to an end with a 10-point home loss to South Dakota State last weekend, the Bison's first loss in their last 32 games at the Fargodome.
This will be the fifth meeting between the two schools. North Dakota State has won the past three after Eastern Washington was victorious in the first-ever matchup back in 2010. The most recent encounter was in the national title game two seasons ago. The Bison, led by quarterback Easton Stick's five total touchdowns, beat the Eagles 38-24 in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 5, 2019 to claim a second straight championship. EWU quarterback Eric Barriere, then a sophomore, finished with only 198 passing yards while tossing two interceptions. He'll get an opportunity to redeem himself on Saturday.
FCS Playoffs First Round: Eastern Washington at North Dakota State
Kickoff: Saturday, April 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -6.5
When Eastern Washington Has the Ball
The Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, Eagles quarterback Eric Barriere also is one of 16 finalists for the prestigious Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best offensive player in the FCS. The senior finished fifth in the voting in 2019 and is considered one of the favorites to win it this season after finishing the regular season in the top five nationally in passing yards (2,199, fourth) and touchdown passes (18, third). He's avearging 367 yards per game through the air and even more impressive, a whopping 13.3 yards per completion. Barriere has been putting up big numbers throughout his EWU career and has led his Eagles to the doorstep of a national championship, falling to North Dakota State two seasons ago. He will no doubt be extra motivated to erase that painful memory.
But Barriere is far from alone when it comes to major contributors on offense for the Eagles, who boast the top offense (562.5 ypg) in the FCS thanks to a host of dynamic playmakers, both through the air and on the ground. Tamarick Pierce enters the weekend as the Big Sky's leading rusher with 437 yards, while he and backfield mate Dennis Merritt have each scored four times on the ground. Talolo Limu-Jones leads the subdivision with 120.2 receiving yards per game and is averaging seven catches per contest. Keep an eye on Anthony Stell Jr., a big-play threat (16.8 ypr) in his own right. All told, 10 different Eagles have caught at least one touchdown pass, meaning Barriere is not afraid to spread the ball around.
North Dakota State has built a reputation for playing solid defense and this year's team is no exception. The Bison have held five of their seven opponents this season to 20 or fewer points, including a stretch of four such games in a row. But NDSU is looking to rebound after losing 27-17 to South Dakota State last Saturday. The Jackrabbits primarily got it done on the ground, rushing for 305 yards while averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Eastern Washington features more of an aerial attack with Barriere at the controls so the Bison will need to figure out a way to put pressure on him. Spencer Waege and Lane Tucker have combined for eight sacks thus far, but making plays in the backfield could be tough against an Eagles offense that allowed just 1.17 sacks and 4.17 tackles for a loss per game during the regular season.
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
FCS' spring season cost the Bison the services of soon-to-be first-round NFL draft pick Trey Lance, as the other quarterbacks have struggled mightily to fill the prolific dual-threat quaterback's shoes. Zeb Noland and Cam Miller have combined for just 140.5 passing yards per game, with Noland throwing more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five). Miller also has been picked off once and all three of his scores have come on the ground (Noland has one rushing TD).
Fortunately, North Dakota State has still been productive while staying grounded (203 ypg), giving the Bison a top-20 rushing attack to offset their bottom-20 passing game. NDSU has more than one guy who is dangerous with the ball in his hands, led by Hunter Luepke's 355 yards and team-high five rushing touchdowns. Two weeks ago, Luepke went for 95 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in the win over Northern Iowa. Jalen Bussey is averaging nine yards per carry and is tied with Miller for second on the team with three scores on the ground. Dominic Gonnella and Kobe Johnson also have seen their share of carries as head coach Matt Entz has had to change things up in his backfield due to injuries. Even though NDSU is struggling to make much happen through the air, Christian Watson (15 rec., 374 yds., TD) is definitely someone Eastern Washington will want to account for.
The Eagles don't have the defensive chops that the Bison do, but this unit has improved quite a bit compared to when it finished in the bottom 30 nationally in both points and yards allowed per game in 2019. EWU sits right about middle of the pack across the board defensively, surrendering 24.3 points and 366.7 yards per game entering the postseason. The pass rush has been productive with 13 sacks in six games, led by Joshua Jerome's three and two each from Mitchell Johnson and Jacob Newsom.
These two teams have limited history but their four meetings have produced a pair of overtime thrillers. North Dakota State is the defending champion and playing at home, but the Bison are not the ones that come into the Fargodome with momentum. Look for Eastern Washington to provide another unexpected outcome to the FCS' unique spring season.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 27, North Dakota State 21
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of @NDSUfootball)