FCS Playoff First Round
Eastern Washington (5-1 Big Sky) vs. North Dakota State (6-2, 5-2 Missouri Valley)
Site: Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota
Kickoff – 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
TV Coverage – ESPN3
Series – North Dakota State leads, 3-1 (last meeting: NDSU won 38-24 in 2018 FCS championship game on Jan. 5, 2019)
Coaches – Eastern Washington: Aaron Best (26-12, fourth season); North Dakota State: Matt Entz (22-2, second season)
3 Players to Watch – Eastern Washington: QB Eric Barriere (166 of 268, 2,192 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs), WR TaloloLimu-Jones (44 receptions, 721 yards, 16.4 ypc, 4 TDs), DE Mitchell Johnson (25 tackles. 4.5 TFL, 2 INTs); North Dakota State: RB Hunter Luepke (63 carries, 355 yards, 5 TDs), WR/KR Christian Watson (15 receptions, 374 yards, TD; 32 touches, 22.1-yard average), LB James Kaczor (70 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 3 QB hurries)
The Skinny – This is regarded as the most attractive matchup of the first round. North Dakota State has never failed to reach the quarterfinals and is 36-2 all-time in the FCS playoffs, but one of the losses was at Eastern Washington in the 2010 quarters. While the Eagles need a huge game out of Barriere (365.3 passing yards per game, No. 5 in the FCS), they’ve committed to the run under Best, averaging 171.2 rushing yards this spring. The Eagles have struggled to match NDSU’s offensive line surge in four previous matchups, surrendering 283.3 rushing yards per game. Their leading tackler, linebacker Ty Graham, has been lost to a season-ending knee injury. NDSU has yet to solve its issues at quarterback (Cam Miller, who may make his first start, and Zeb Noland). Even with the Trey Lance-led 39-28 win over Central Arkansas in October counting toward 2020-21 season statistics, the Bison’s 24.8 points per game are the low of their Division I era (since 2004) and 339.4 yards per game their second-lowest average. Punter Garret Wegner (46.2-yard average, 42.4 net) so often makes a difference with field position.
Up Next – The winner will play either Monmouth or No. 2 seed Sam Houston in the second round on May 1 or 2.
Prediction – North Dakota State 31, Eastern Washington 21