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EWU, Bison feel up to the challenge

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It doesn't matter if it's a turnover, defensive lapse or poor punt. If it happens in the fourth quarter, Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin believes his players almost say to themselves, "This is what we wanted, a little adversity."

What Baldwin likes about his team is its positive approach to any situation. The Eagles don't worry about what just happened - good or bad - which is somewhat surprising to him considering it's a somewhat young team that entered t returning starters (10) than lost starters (12).

It's exactly the kind of loose feeling a coach wants his team to have as it enters the quarterfinal round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The No. 1-ranked Eagles (10-2), fifth-seeded for the playoffs, will host upstart North Dakota State (9-4) on Saturday in a first-ever meeting between the two programs.

"It's a pleasant surprise how many great leaders there are and how well they've handled adversity and tough situations and basically embraced it," said Baldwin, a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award, which is sponsored by Fathead.com and presented to the FCS coach of the year. "In other words, we've been in a number of situations where we've either been tied in the fourth quarter, down in the fourth quarter, and we've found ways to come out with a lot of wins. We're still a relatively young team."

Eastern Washington RB Taiwan Jones ranks second in the FCS in all-purpose yards (196.6 ypg).
If the Eagles see red, it's the new turf at Roos Field, not a stop sign. Two- thirds of their games have been tight in the fourth quarter. They are 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and another win, over Montana, was a three-point game until they added a touchdown on an untimed final play.

North Dakota State isn't daunted by a big spot, either. The Bison have their share of younger players excelling beyond their years. They start three true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen.

"We've got a young football team, but as each week goes along, you're gaining a lot of experience," said head coach Craig Bohl, who is in his eighth season guiding the Bison. "We had a lot of freshman that are out there playing. I know early in the (Montana State) game (a 42-17 win in the second round), I see (linebacker) Grant Olson come up with a sack, and, all of a sudden, you forget that he's a freshman, he's been playing so much. Whether it be (center) Jesse Hinz or (right tackle) Billy Turner, I mean the list goes on and on."

EWU, which is on an eight-game winning streak that is its longest since a similar run to the national semifinals in 1997, is hosting the quarterfinal because North Dakota State's unseeded squad blew past Montana State - the Big Sky co-champ with EWU - with its usual second-half burst. Meanwhile, the Eagles scored the final 23 points in a 37-17 win over Southeast Missouri State.

There's no secret about this showdown - run the ball. The game-time temperature will be about freezing, and each team will try to establish the run game with its dynamic junior running back, D.J. McNorton for North Dakota State and Taiwan Jones for EWU. McNorton has rushed for a school single-season record of 1,435 yards and Jones 1,512 yards - each going over 100 yards in eight games. Both are dangerous receivers out of the backfield, too.

The differences between the two teams are obvious, and which team can impart its will can decide the game.

North Dakota State RB D.J. McNorton has rushed for 1,435 yards and 14 touchdowns.
EWU's Bo Levi Mitchell, the SMU transfer, is a dangerous passer. North Dakota State will run play-action passes, but it doesn't even offer a big-time passer, whether redshirt freshman Brock Jensen (concussion) or Jose Mohler (sophomore) is at the controls of the offense.

But North Dakota State's second-place squad from the Missouri Valley Conference has a superior defense. While EWU's J.C. Sherritt is among the nation's best linebackers, the Bison are surrendering only 16.7 points per game with a physical 4-3 defense that features linebacker Preston Wilson as well as Coulton Boyer and Matt Gratzek up front.

"I'm expecting a slugfest," Baldwin said. "I'm expecting them to come in here like they should, with the idea that they're one of the top eight teams in the country at this point, and they're going to play like it. And I expect our guys to respond as well. It's going to be one of those ball games, the physicalness of the game and the toughness of the game, doing the little things in terms of turnover ratio, third-down (conversions), special teams. Those things are going to weigh really heavy in a game like this, in my opinion."

"We just think they're a heck of a football team, they put up good numbers," Bohl said. "Any time you win 10 games against the quality of opponents they have ... there's reason why they're ranked No. 1. They have a very prolific tailback. He is explosive, great speed, excellent numbers. I know he's up for the Payton Award - big-time receiver. So they're prolific on offense and they play really well on defense, and I think they've gotten better during the course of the year."

"I think they're very good, they're the best we've played. But the thing is, you're down to eight teams. You've got eight teams that are still playing, they're all going to be pretty good. That's how we see it. Hopefully, they look at us and think we're pretty good, too."

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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