Nov. 24, 2007
Lake Charles, La. -
It was hard to tell which team was unbeaten, second-seeded and ranked third in the nation.
Behind a dominating offensive performance, Eastern Washington University advanced in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs with a 44-15 victory over McNeese State in a first-round game of the Saturday (Nov. 24) at Cowboy Stadium in Lake Charles, La.
Eastern rolled up 626 yards of total offense -- the sixth-most in school history -- led by the 459 total yards by sophomore Matt Nichols and 130 rushing by junior Dale Morris. The win advances the 9-3 and 14th-ranked Eagles to a quarterfinal game at two-time defending FCS champion Appalachian State next Saturday (Dec. 1).
"I didn't expect this," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff of the large winning margin. "We had a good game plan and our players ultimately executed it. They took care of business and got after it. We played solid football for four quarters.
"It was fun to play a great football game against a great football team," he added. "We played a great team tonight and played well, and came out on top."
Nichols, named this past week 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.
"Matt played well, but we knew the offensive line had to be the key tonight," said Wulff. "We challenged those guys all week saying they are a key to the ballgame. I think it started up front. Our offensive line played as well as we could ask in these circumstances with this game. They have to be the catalyst -- there is no question. There are a lot of good players there and they have to play well."
Morris had touchdown runs of 3, 20, 1 and 4 yards and carried 22 times in the game. Eastern had scoring drives of 51, 51, 59, 74, 68, 82 and 80 yards.
Eastern had 34 first downs -- just five away from the school record of 39.
"Our offensive line manhandled them and controlled the entire game," added Nichols. "Whenever we needed to run the ball it was eight yards a carry. Whenever I needed to throw the ball I had all day to throw. Our offensive line played an amazing game. They are a bunch of amazing guys with a lot of seniors who want to keep playing. They did that for themselves tonight."
Eastern held the Cowboys to 312 yards as it was a dominating performance on both sides of the ball against previously unbeaten MSU. The Cowboys ended their season with an 11-1 record after entering the game ranked third in FCS and seeded second in the playoffs.
Junior Greg Peach had eight tackles with a pair of sacks to lead the defense. Senior Bryan Jarrett added six tackles and an interception, and Jason Belford had a sack with four total tackles. Sophomore Kevin Hatch had four tackles, a forced fumble and an interception.
"We've learned a lot on defense," said Wulff. "People talk a lot about our offense, but people better pay attention to our defense. We gave up one touchdown tonight against a very good football team playing at home. Our defense is playing well, but like or offense, they have a heckuva challenge ahead of them this next game against a great football team."
Eastern's Big Sky rival, Montana, also lost Saturday after entering 11-0. Montana was third seeded and ranked second.
The Mountaineers scored with just over a minute to play to defeat James Madison 28-27 in their first-round game. Ranked 14th this week in FCS, Appalachian State upset Michigan 34-32 to open the season.
"We're familiar with them a little bit," said Wulff. "We've never really watched them or studied them because we've never had to play them. Obviously, they are a great football team but they have lost this season. We are just going to line up and play. It's all about what we do. If we take care of our own business we'll be fine."
In the process of beating McNeese State, Eastern repeated a bit of history.
In 2004, in the first of what is now three playoff berths in the last four seasons for the Eagles under Wulff, Eastern drew No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Southern Illinois. The Eagles went on to defeat the Salukis 35-31 before falling at home in the quarterfinals to Sam Houston State.