CSN West: Who’s Best in the West?
The game to decide the best FCS team in the west has some surprising participants in North Dakota State and Eastern Washington
By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
CHENEY, Wa. — Well, we are down to just two West teams left as we head to the quarterfinal round.
When the playoff brackets were announced, it appeared as if this round would be basically a Big Sky championship game as if the seeds went as they would meet again in Bozeman, Mt.
Eastern Washington held up their end of the bargain by defeating Southeast Missouri State 37-17.
North Dakota State, however, decided that they would spoil the all-Big Sky party and defeated Montana State last week 42-17.
So NDSU and EWU are the West’s last hope to finally get a FCS title to a school west of the Mississippi for the first time since Montana won the title in 2001.
Where these two teams expected to go this far this year?
In my eyes, I thought Eastern Washington could be a playoff team this year after they made the postseason a year ago as they returned a number of key components from last year’s team.
But almost no one was picking the Eagles to win a share of the Big Sky Conference championship.
For North Dakota State, I don’t think anyone had them in the playoffs. I thought they might turn things around and at least have a winning season following a 3-8 2009 season.
But I did not think a playoff season was in order for the Bison and NDSU was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
EWU earned their fifth FCS playoff appearance in seven seasons in 2010 and second under coach Beau Baldwin.
The Eagles needed to replace All-American and four-year starting quarterback Matt Nichols, who finished his career as the Big Sky’s all-time leader in passing and total offense.
EWU also only returned five starters on each side of the ball. But two key members from last year did return.
Junior running back Taiwan Jones staked a claim as the best running back in FCS. He scored 19 touchdowns in 2009 and ranking second nationally in all-purpose yards per game at 195.4.
Jones was joined on the defensive side by senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who led the nation in tackles in 2009 by averaging over 14 tackles per game.
Those two have been key members this year again, along with FBS Southern Methodist transfer quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
Jones currently ranks second in the FCS in all-purpose yards (196.6 ypg). Sherritt is again EWU's leading tackler thus far with 135 for the season, an average of 11.25 per game that ranks 10th in FCS.
Mitchell has thrown for 230.1 yards per game with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
NDSU has done it predominately with defense.
The Bison are ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 16.7 points per game. They are also sixth in turnover margin (+1.0 per game) and 16th in passing efficiency defense (106.4).
North Dakota State has excelled with a team defense concept, but junior linebacker Preston Wilson and junior Coulton Boyer and senior Matt Gratzek on the line have led the effort.
The Bison offense has been pretty much running back D.J. McNorton, who rushed for 207 of NDSU's 376 rushing yards against Montana State last week with four touchdowns.
McNorton is currently 14th in FCS in rushing yards per game (110.4) and 18th in all-purpose rushing (143.2).
Redshirt freshman Brock Jensen, who was out after a concussion in last week’s game in the second quarter, or sophomore Jose Mohler have been under center this year for NDSU but have been ineffective when passing.
With McNorton running, the Bison quarterbacks have not needed to do much than manage the game and avoid turnovers.
How will this game be won?
The weather forecast in Cheney for this game is calling for a chance of snow showers but temperatures should be in the low to mid 30s. So weather should not be a huge issue.
On the year, the Bison have forced an FCS-fifth-best 32 turnovers. This will likely be the key in this game as Eastern Washington has yet to lose on the new red turf of Roos Field (6-0).
But NDSU is seemingly peaking at the right time and has yet to lose to any non-Missouri Valley team.
Eastern Washington is a similar team to that of Montana State on the offensive side so I think NDSU will be able to slow down but not completely shut down the Eagle offense.
The Eagle defense most likely will do a better job than MSU did last week against the run last week. The Eagles statistically are more effective against the run, allowing 131.1 rushing yards per game (No. 36 FCS) as opposed to 262.1 passing yards (No. 114 FCS).
NDSU will need to complete more than the five passes they did against MSU to win and will need a more balanced attack to win.
I think this game will likely be a defensive struggle with like mentioned above with the winner likely winning the turnover margin.
While I would have hoped this West matchup would have been a round or two later in the playoffs, I will take this West championship game and I hope the winner gets two more victories this year to finally bring a championship to the West.
CSN West Playoff Game Preview
North Dakota State (9-4) @ Eastern Washington (10-2), 3:35 Eastern
This is the first ever meeting between the Bison and Eagles. Montana State is the lone common opponent for these two teams this year.
NDSU defeated MSU 42-17 last week, while EWU lost 30-7 to the Bobcats in Bozeman in September.
That later score likely do not mean too much as both teams are different than what they were to begin the season.
I think Eastern Washington will be able to win this game should they hang on to the ball. I like the Eagles in a rather low scoring game by a touchdown.
Eastern Washington 24 North Dakota State 17.