November 17, 2007

Eastern Keeps Playoff Hopes Alive with 38-16 Win

Nov. 17, 2007

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The 28 seconds it took for Eastern Washington University to overcome its only deficit of the game is nothing to the agonizing day-long wait the Eagles will now have to endure.

Putting the finishing touches on a four-game winning streak and 8-3 finish to the regular season, the Eagles scored 24 unanswered points to roll past Weber State 38-16 Saturday (Nov. 17) in a Big Sky Conference football game at rain-soaked Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.

"I'm very excited to play like this against a great football team in these conditions, and find a way to win," said a proud Eagle head coach Paul Wulff.

The victory kept Eastern in the hunt for one of eight at-large berths in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs that begin next Saturday (Nov. 24). Eastern will find out if its second-place finish in the Big Sky (6-2) is worthy of a berth in the playoffs, which will be announced on Sunday (Nov. 18) at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time on ESPNU (DirecTV channel 609 and Dish Network channel 148).

"We can talk about the playoffs when we find out tomorrow if we are in or not," said Wulff. "Obviously we think we should. Hopefully it works out in our favor."

Sophomore quarterback Matt Nichols passed for 256 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for another 103 yards in the milestone win after he endured a 3-8 record as a freshman. Nichols accounted for 359 of EWU's 426 yards of total offense as he more than doubled his previous career-best of 48 rushing yards set a week earlier in a 52-24 victory at Northern Arizona.

For the season, Nichols has completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,125 yards, 30 touchdowns, just six interceptions and a passing efficiency rating of 161.4 to rank fifth in that category last week in FCS

"He did a great job and took advantage of the things that were working well for us," said Wulff. "He did some big things in a big game today. It was a good thing for him to come in and play well back-to-back weeks."

A slippery field caused by day-long rain slowed down Eastern's offense in the first half, and the Eagles fell behind 16-14 with 7:55 to play in the third quarter. But a 51-yard kickoff return by Tony Davis was followed by passes of 21 yards to Aaron Boyce and 22 yards for a touchdown to Brynsen Brown. That gave Eastern the lead for good as EWU trailed for all of 28 seconds.

Eastern went on to score 17 more unanswered points, including a back-breaking 36-yard pass from Nichols to tight end Nathan Overbay late in the third quarter. That came on a fourth-and-inches play as Nichols faked a sneak into the line, but pulled back and tossed to a wide-open Overbay.

"It was a play we worked on, and we knew we needed to take our shots in this game," said Wulff. "We were going to use all the tricks we had if we needed to."

Nichols also tossed a 4-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jimerson in the opening quarter on an eight-play, 80-yard drive before the rain began. He also had a 14-yard touchdown strike to Shane Eller, and Jimerson capped the scoring with an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Brown led Eastern's receivers with six catches for 99 yards, and Dale Morris added 47 yards on the ground. Defensively, Jared Kuhl had 14 tackles, Anthony Dotson had 13, Bryan Jarrett had eight with two passes broken up and Ira Jarmon had six with four passes broken up and an interception that led to an EWU field goal in the fourth quarter.

Kuhl, Dotson, Jarrett and Jarmon, as well as Eller, were among the 12 Eastern seniors playing in their final regular season game at Woodward Field on "Senior Day" at EWU. Four of Eastern's starting offensive linemen are also seniors, and Wulff had nothing but praise for his seniors after the victory.

"I think this is one of the best teams we've ever had, and when I say that I mean kids that care about each other and love the game. I am awfully proud of the seniors because they spearhead that."

"I'm just so proud of those guys," Wulff added of the offensive line, which he coaches along with former Eagle and NFL player Tom Ackerman. "They have played a lot of football and are phenomenal leaders -- as good of people as I've ever been around. Having the ability to coach with the offensive line this year and be closer to them was great."

If Eastern advances to the playoffs, it will be the school's sixth appearance (1985, 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005), and third in the last four seasons. Last year Eastern was 3-8 overall and 3-5 in the Big Sky to finish in a tie for sixth.

Saturday's victory was EWU's fifth-straight Big Sky victory, a feat EWU accomplished in 1997 when the Eagles won their last five league games en route to a 12-2 finish and semifinal appearance in the FCS Playoffs. Even in EWU's playoff years in 1992, 2004 and 2005, Eastern was not able to win four-straight league games.

"A year ago, it was really difficult on our program," said Wulff, whose team started this year's league season 1-2. "It was nice to work hard and work ourselves back to what we believe we are -- and that's a national caliber football team. Being in the playoff situation three out of the last four years says a lot."

The Wildcats finished with 326 yards of offense as the Wildcats ended their season with a 5-6 record overall and 4-4 league mark. Weber State had entered with a three-game winning streak, with an average of 57.7 points and 602.7 yards of offense in those three outings after averaging just 312.6 yards and 15.7 points in its first seven.

Freshman quarterback Cameron Higgins had 238 yards passing for the Wildcats, but had passed for 776 yards and eight touchdowns in his last two Big Sky outings. Trevyn Smith, the Big Sky's leading rusher entering the game with 1,230 yards, had just 84 against the Eagles.

Eastern also kept FCS all-purpose rushing leader Bryan Eteuati in check for the most part. He entered the game averaging 212.4 yards (rushing, receiving, returns), but had just 159 on Saturday. He caught seven passes for 74 yards, had one rush for five yards, one punt return for minus four yards and returned four kickoff returns for 84 with a long of 31.

"They have the best returner in the league and we had to make sure we did everything we could to keep them off balance," said Wulff.

Selection Show on Sunday, November 18: The 16-team NCAA Football Championship Subdivision bracket will be announced on ESPNU at approximately 12:30 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, Nov. 18. There are no satellite coordinates that can be distributed because ESPNU is a scrambled satellite signal. ESPNU can be found on DirecTV at channel 609 and on Dish Network at channel 148. In addition, some cable systems carry the ESPNU signal. Immediately after the announcement the bracket will be available at www.ncaasports.com. The bracket announcement will be replayed later in the day on ESPNews.

About the Playoffs: The 16-team playoffs include eight league champions who receive automatic berths and Montana has secured that spot for the Big Sky. That leaves eight at-large berths, and Eastern seems to have history on its side to gain an at-large berth. At least two teams from the Big Sky have been selected for the FCS playoffs in each of the past eight seasons. And since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1986, the league's runner-up (including tiebreakers) has always been selected with an 8-3 record or better.

Eagles in the Playoffs: Eastern's 2005 appearance in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs was the school's fifth berth in school history, and the first time the Eagles have made back-to-back appearances.

Eastern's 2004 appearance in the second round was the third time Eastern advanced past the first round. Eastern now has a 4-5 record in five playoff appearances after losing at Northern Iowa 41-38 in the first round of the 2005 playoffs. In 2004, Eastern defeated No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Southern Illinois 35-31 in the first round and then lost 35-34 to Sam Houston State in the quarterfinal round in EWU's first-ever playoff game at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.

Eastern hadn't appeared in the FCS playoffs since 1997 when the Eagles advanced to the semifinals where it lost to Youngstown State 25-14 at Albi Stadium in Spokane, Wash. Eastern played two early-round games at Albi, defeating Northwestern State 40-10 and Western Kentucky 38-21.

Eastern also participated in the playoffs in 1985 (won at Idaho 42-38 and lost at Northern Iowa 17-14) and 1992 (lost at Northern Iowa 17-14). The school's only other post-season experience came in 1967 when Eastern advanced to the NAIA Championship game where it lost to Fairmont State 28-21.

Here is a complete list of EWU's playoff games:
2005 - at Northern Iowa - L, 38-41 (First Round)
2004 - Sam Houston State - L, 34-35 (Quarterfinals/Cheney)
2004 - at Southern Illinois - W, 35-31 (First Round)
1997 - Youngstown State - L, 14-25 (Semifinals/Spokane)
1997 - Western Kentucky - W, 38-21 (Quarterfinals/Spokane)
1997 - Northwestern State - W, 40-10 (First Round/Spokane)
1992 - at Northern Iowa - L, 14-17 (First Round)
1985 - at Northern Iowa - L, 14-17 (Quarterfinals)
1985 - at Idaho - W, 42-38 (First Round)

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