Eastern Washington's mantra all season has been “Leave No Doubt” — be so good that the FCS playoff selection committee couldn’t keep the Eagles on the sideline like they did in the 2017 postseason.
It’s happened with the Eagles, but the three words also describe what North Dakota State has done in building the greatest dynasty in FCS history.
The defending champion Bison don’t just have a matchup with Eastern Washington in the title game on Jan. 5, they also have a date with destiny. They’re seeking a record seventh FCS title — all since 2011. It would break their tie with Georgia Southern for the most in subdivision history.
The Bison are 2-1 all-time against Eastern Washington. The lone Eagles’ win occurred in the 2010 national quarterfinals. They went on to the win the FCS title in the first year the championship game was moved to Frisco, Texas.
FCS Championship Game: No. 3 seed Eastern Washington (12-2) vs. No. 1 seed North Dakota State (14-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 5, at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Bison be thundering on the ground?
Eastern Washington is good, not great, defending the run, ranking 46th in the FCS. That usually isn’t good enough against North Dakota State, which can dictate games with its outstanding offensive line and power run game. The Eagles might be playing a second straight game without nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, following a felony assault charge in December. Plus, the three-week break following the semifinals allowed the Bison running backs to get healthier, especially seniors Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn. EWU can’t let the Bison run wild.
2. Can Eric Barriere be like Taryn Christion, if not Vernon Adams Jr.?
Until the semifinals, South Dakota State quarterback Taryn Christion had enjoyed consistent success in his career against North Dakota State. Eastern Washington needs dual-threat sophomore Eric Barriere to build off their semifinal victory when he passed for a playoff-record seven touchdown passes. No, he won’t come close to that performance, but, Barriere, like Christion, can spread out the field with his targets and scramble away from the Bison pass rush. In Eastern Washington lore, that’s similar to Adams Jr. — the other Eagle to throw for seven TDs in a game.
3. Win field position
As much as the Bison make winning look easy — a 111-8 record since the start of the 2011 season — they’re content with making games a four-quarter battle of attrition. To do that up, they usually win the game of field position, setting it up even when not scoring, whether it be with defensive stops, punter Garret Wegner or the returns, especially Darrius Shepherd on punts. Eastern Washington needs some difference-makers to win field position, whether it be punter Roldan Alcobendas, the coverage units and especially the defense, perhaps with forcing turnovers.
North Dakota State has been on a mission all season, not just to claim a record seventh FCS title, but to go undefeated and rank among the greatest teams in subdivision history. The Bison rarely let big opportunities slip by.
Quarterback Easton Stick, the most outstanding player of last year’s championship, and the 24-member senior class, including veterans Robbie Grimsley and Greg Menard on defense, will lead the way again against a worthy opponent. It’s not just their final game, but also the last for Kansas State-bound head coach Chris Klieman.
Destiny. Dynasty. Indeed.
Prediction: North Dakota State 35, Eastern Washington 21
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)