Perhaps the best part of Eastern Washington University’s thrilling come-from-behind victory over Portland State was the rest that awaits.
The Eagles, who capped a perfect 8-0 Big Sky Conference season with a 42-41 win over the Vikings on Saturday (Nov. 22), received a first-round bye and will host a game on Dec. 7 at 1 p.m. Pacific time at Roos Field in the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
Pairings were announced Sunday morning, and the Eagles will face the winner of the South Dakota State at Northern Arizona game at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Nov. 30. The Jackrabbits are 8-4 on the season while the Lumberjacks are 9-2 after finishing second behind the Eagles in the Big Sky standings.
Eastern received the No. 3 seed, putting it in the same bracket as No. 2 Eastern Illinois. Seeds 1-8 are guaranteed home games through to the semifinals provided they are the higher-seeded team in their match-up. Montana received the No. 8 seed and is in the opposite side the bracket with top-seeded and two-time defending champion North Dakota State. Southern Utah also made the bracket from the Big Sky, while Montana State was left off after losing its last three games of the season.
Tickets for Eastern’s Dec. 7 game go on sale at 10 a.m. on Monday (Nov. 25). The championship game is Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas, on ESPN2. All games in the first two rounds will be broadcast via ESPN3, with TV for subsequent rounds to be announced.
“We had a good idea – a No. 3 seed is what everybody was saying and it’s what we kind of expected,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “It’s perfect. We know we are going to get that first one at home, and we’ll have to go out and earn a victory. It’s exciting for our team, and exciting to have that first-round bye. From a physical and mental standpoint, it’s a long road to get to this point.”
Eastern has had seven playoff berths in a nine-year span (2004-13), ranking the Eagles as one of only four schools among 122 in FCS to accomplish that feat. The others are Montana, New Hampshire and Appalachian State. New Hampshire, North Dakota State and Appalachian State join the Eagles as the only teams to have qualified in four of the last five years.
Best of all, the Eagles get a first-round bye and are hosting games, just like they did last season when they advanced to the semifinals and in 2010 when the Eagles won the NCAA Division I title. Getting players healthy is the greatest benefit of having Thanksgiving weekend off.
“We could feel it after the game, and even in the last few weeks,” said Baldwin. “But you have to keep grinding and keep going. We knew if we were fortunate enough to receive the bye over Thanksgiving it would come a good time for us. We need to let some guys to heal physically, but also mentally to allow our players to rest and regroup. We’ll get some work in before they go for Thanksgiving, then we’ll hit it hard next week when we know exactly who we play.”
Eastern has never played SDSU, but is 19-10 overall against NAU. Because of the expansion of the league in 2012, the Eagles haven’t played NAU since 2011 when EWU won in Flagstaff, Ariz., 38-26.
Interestingly, Eastern’s last-gasp win over PSU – EWU drove 74 yards in just 29 seconds for a game-winning TD with 31 seconds to play, denied NAU a share of the league title with Eastern. The Lumberjacks finished 7-1 in the Big Sky this year.
“We thought there was a chance us and NAU could meet up somewhere quickly,” said Baldwin. “It’s a credit to all the Big Sky schools who were included – NAU, Montana and Southern Utah – for representing the league really well. It’s fun having four teams in this bracket.”