Michael Buffer could set up the Maine-Eastern Washington showdown in the FCS semifinals on Saturday.
In one corner of the FCS — literally, the northern-most school in the East — comes the challenger, CAA champion Maine, after being picked eighth in the CAA preseason poll, and making its first appearance in the final four.
In the other corner of the FCS — the northern-most end in the West — comes a staple out of the Big Sky, Eastern Washington, the 2010 national champion and appearing in its fifth semifinal this decade and the sixth time overall.
The winner advances to take on a Missouri Valley Football Conference power, South Dakota State or defending FCS champion North Dakota State, in the national title game on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
Let’s get ready to rumble.
FCS Semifinal: No. 7 (10-3) at No. 3 Eastern Washington (11-2)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Roos Field (8,600) in Cheney, Wash.
Three Things to Watch
1. Will fatigue set in with the Black Bears?
Maine is playing its ninth road game, having won at Western Kentucky and traveled to Central Michigan as well as Virginia twice (William & Mary and Richmond) during the regular season. But what the Black Bears are facing this week is particularly demanding. They won at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, in the quarterfinals and have to make an even farther trip back into Big Sky country to face Eastern Washington. How their legs hold up in the second half is a big factor.
2. Speed and strength
Eastern Washington has long been a program with fast, explosive players, especially with its high-octane offense. This year, it starts behind center with dual-threat quarterback Eric Barriere, who has breakaway speed and has rushed/scrambled for more than 50 yards in six of his eight starts (a 7-1 record). Maine features a more physical lineup, especially on both lines of scrimmage, and surely has the best defense the Eagles have faced this season. Which style of play gains the advantage is key.
3. Win the turnover battle
Both teams are nearly identical in turnovers. They’re both plus-eight with Maine forcing 30 takeaways (tied for the second in the FCS) and losing 22, and Eastern Washington gaining 28 and losing 20. They also were plus-three in their respective five-point wins in the quarterfinals. This week, just one turnover could flip this tight first-time meeting. Barriere and Maine counterpart Chris Ferguson need to be efficient and protect the football.
It’s offense versus defense. Eastern Washington ranks second in the FCS in yards per game (538.3) and fourth in points per game (44.1), while Maine is top 10 in defense, first in defending the run and has the second-most sacks in the FCS (linebackers Sterling Sheffield and Deshawn Stephens and defensive end Kayon Whitaker have at least nine each).
The scenario favors Eastern Washington being at home and against Maine making another long trip west. But head coach Joe Harasymiak’s Black Bears have a 7-0 record against ranked opponents and might have one more big effort in them.
Prediction: Maine 28, Eastern Washington 24
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of EWU Athletics)