Nov. 25, 2007
It was history the Eastern Washington University football program preferred to forget, but in the heat of the moment it was worth remembering.
The Eagles advanced to a quarterfinal game of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs with a surprisingly easy 44-15 victory over previously unbeaten McNeese State Saturday (Nov. 24) in Lake Charles, La.
Eastern will now play at two-time defending champion Appalachian State next Saturday (Dec. 1) in Boone, N.C. Kickoff is scheduled for 9:05 a.m. Pacific time in a televised game produced by ESPN Gameplan.
Eastern's easy first-round win over the Cowboys marked Eastern's third appearance in the playoffs in the last four years. But when the Eagles held a 22-point lead early in the fourth quarter, that big lead wasn't necessarily a good omen.
In a quarterfinal loss to Sam Houston State at home in 2004, Eastern led 34-14 with 14:54 left before falling 35-34. The next year, in a first round game at Northern Iowa, the Eagles led 38-24 with 11:03 remaining but lost 41-38.
This time, Eastern held McNeese State scoreless the final 24:12 of the game and the Eagles scored their final touchdown in the fourth quarter on an 80-yard drive that took more than six minutes off the clock. That clinching score followed an interception by senior Bryan Jarrett, who redshirted at EWU in 2004 and played in the disappointing loss the following season at Northern Iowa.
"That Northern Iowa game two years ago is definitely a bad memory I have," said Jarrett, who also had six tackles against the Cowboys. "I even thought about it during this game once we got up. I was thinking `okay guys, let's keep pouring it on, pouring it on.' If you let teams hang around they can come back and beat you."
With 12 seniors leading the way, including nine senior starters, the Eagles weren't about to let history repeat itself. Eastern had twice as many yards as McNeese State -- 626-312 -- as EWU finished with the sixth-most yards in school history. It was the most in 10 years against a FCS opponent, and the most in five years overall.
"I think it's helped a lot," Jarrett said of the team's playoff experience owned by the seniors. "We have a great group of seniors. It's the best group I've been around and I've seen some good seniors in this program. We seem to be really gelling right now. (The seniors) keep the guys together when things go bad and we pick the rest of the team back up. When things are going good we don't let them let down. It's really helping this football team right now."
At one point, Eastern scored on five-straight offensive possessions behind an offensive line that features four senior starters. The defense, with four senior starters, forced three turnovers as EWU won the turnover battle 3-2 against a team that ranked fourth nationally with a plus 1.64 margin per game (plus 18 overall). Eastern's defense was right behind at 10th nationally (1.27 per game, plus 14 overall).
"We knew coming into the game that they were a big-play team and when they get a couple of big plays on teams they don't let up," said Jarrett. "Part of our game plan was to keep everything in front of us. Our defensive line played a great game again and pressured their quarterback, and our guys covered well in the secondary. Once we got up on them we kind of got on a roll."
Sophomore quarterback Matt Nichols, named Nov. 19 as the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year, completed 34-of-44 passes for 434 yards and two touchdowns in the win. It was the sixth 300-yard passing performance in his career, including fifth this season.
In the process, he tied and broke the school record for single season passing touchdowns with a current total of 32 to break the record of 31 held previously by the quarterback he replaced, Erik Meyer, in 2004. Meyer went on to win the 2005 Payton Award as the top player in FCS.
Nichols tied the record with an 80-yard touchdown on a screen pass to sophomore Tony Davis late in the second quarter following an interception by Eastern's Kevin Hatch. He broke it with a 10-yard TD in the fourth quarter to Nathan Overbay.
Last year as a freshman, Nichols tied the school record with 17 interceptions and had only eight touchdowns. This year, he has just eight interceptions to go along with the 32 touchdowns.
"Once again our coaches had a great offensive scheme," said Nichols of his passing performance, the sixth-best in school history. "We were running the same plays we've been running the whole year, but they just couldn't stop it. We kept going up-tempo on them and they just couldn't handle it. They got tired and couldn't cover our receivers. In my opinion we had too many weapons on offense for their defense to stop."
The game didn't exactly start the way it ended as McNeese State returned a Nichols interception for a touchdown. That came on a pass that went off Davis' hands and gave the Cowboys a quick 7-0 lead.
"We stayed together as a team, even after the pick I threw that they returned for a touchdown," he said. "Everybody kept their trust in me. A couple of weeks ago I might have gone into the tank after throwing a pick for a touchdown. But I've come a long way mentally to handle that and I know I need to be there for my team after I make a mistake. I think we are a great team and we beat a great team."
For the second time in the last three years, Eastern entered a playoff game on the road ranked just 14th nationally, but came away with a victory over a heavily-favored opponent. In 2004, Eastern beat No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Southern Illinois 35-31. McNeese State entered this year's playoff game seeded second in the playoffs and ranked third nationally.
"It was definitely intimidating flying all the way to Louisiana and playing the unbeaten No. 2 team in the nation," added Nichols. "But as soon as we started getting into the game and we realized we were better than these guys, everybody's confidence really grew."
Playoff Results and Pairings (Times Pacific)
#1 Northern Iowa (12-0, top-seeded) 38, #17 New Hampshire (7-5) 35
#13 Delaware (9-3) 44, Delaware State (10-2) 7
#4 Southern Illinois (11-1, fourth-seeded) 30, #18 Eastern Illinois (8-4) 11
#7 Massachusetts (10-2) 49, #25 Fordham (8-4) 35
#14 Eastern Washington (9-3) 44, #3 McNeese State (11-0, second-seeded) 15
#5 Appalachian State (10-2) 28, #12 James Madison (8-4) 27
#11 Wofford (9-3) 23, #2 Montana (11-1, third-seeded) 22
#6 Richmond (10-2) 31, #9 Eastern Kentucky (9-3) 14
Saturday, Dec. 1 (at campus sites)
Quarterfinal Game 1 - #13 Delaware (9-3) at #1 Northern Iowa (12-0), 11 a.m.
Quarterfinal Game 2 - #7 Massachusetts (10-2) at #4 Southern Illinois (11-1), 12:30 p.m.
Quarterfinal Game 3 - #14 Eastern Washington (9-3) at #5 Appalachian State (10-2) in Boone, N.C., 9 a.m.
Quarterfinal Game 4 - #6 Richmond (10-2) at #11 Wofford (9-3), 4 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 7 & 8 (at campus sites TBA)
Semifinal Game 1 - Winners of Quarterfinal Games 1 & 2
Semifinal Game 2 - Winners of Quarterfinal Games 3 & 4
Friday, Dec. 14 (Chattanooga, Tenn.)
Championship Game, 5 p.m. on ESPN2HD