Here we go with the Quarterfinals:
#14 Eastern Washington (9-3) @ #5 Appalachian State (10-2)
TV: ESPN Gameplan
Kidd Brewer Stadium
Jeff Sagarin ratings:
Home advantage: 2.59 points
ASU is favored to win by 13 points
Series: First Meeting
Last Meeting: n/a
It is amazing how quickly the playoffs start with a party and dwindle down to a small gathering. Only eight teams remain in the chase for the National Championship. When the playoffs started, Appalachian expected to be in this very position, as one of the few teams remaining. What they did not expect was to be playing at home on the second weekend. I am guessing fans of McNeese State probably did not expect a rather unknown Eastern Washington team to absolutely demolish them in their own house. That is the beauty of the playoffs. You cannot make plans for next week because there may not be a next week. The way Appalachian played on Saturday, James Madison fans may have been thinking about the next week a little too early as the Dukes plowed over a very young Mountaineer defensive line for 25 first downs. Madison players were talking all week long about, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” With 22 seconds remaining, Appalachian finished strong, and they will hope that carries over against a very dangerous Eastern Washington football team.
It is no understatement to mention that Eastern Washington is a very dangerous team. They are fourth in the nation in total offense with 470 yards a game and they have a player at quarterback in Matt Nichols that will be playing for the Payton Award for the next two years. Nichols has thrown for over 3500 yards and 32 touchdowns, including a dominating performance against McNeese State where he threw for 434 and completed 77% of his pass attempts. Nichols is not considered a pocket passes either, as he has rushed over ten times in six games this season, including four of his last five games.
Nichols primary target is sophomore receiver Aaron Boyce who has caught 80 passes for 1271 yards and 9 touchdowns. Boyce hauled in 17 catches for 232 yards in a 24-23 loss to Montana. Boyce has only caught 1 touchdown pass in the last 4 games as teams have keyed in on trying to stop him. Brysen Brown caught seven passes for 104 yards against McNeese State to up his season totals to 48 catches for 729 yards. Shane Eller has 45 catches for 560 yards on the season.
Eastern Washington has struggled a bit on defense this season. The Eagles have allowed 248 yards a game passing and 130 yards on the ground. Although their rushing defense mirrors that of James Madison in numbers, part of that is how Eastern Washington has been able to put teams away. In half of their games, the Eagles have beaten their opponents by more than three touchdowns. When teams play from behind, they have to pass the ball and not run. Not facing teams that run the ball is part of the reason they are ranked so high in run defense. It may also lead to the reason that the Eagles have given up so many yards passing. The Eastern secondary has intercepted 22 passes this year because teams having to play from behind.
The one common opponent for Appalachian and Eastern Washington is Northern Arizona. Eastern was able to jump on the Lumberjacks really early and scored 28 points in the first quarter en route to a 52-24 win. Northern Arizona was able to run the ball for 298 yards on Eastern Washington. Against Appalachian, the ‘Jacks ran for 234 yards. ASU’s defense was able to hold NAU’s best receiver Alex Watson to one catch for zero yards. Eastern Washington let Watson get loose for 6 catches and 68 yards, including a 55 yard touchdown reception. Eastern Washington won that game in front of 4,166 fans. Appalachian won their game in front of a crowd of 27,104. Armanti Edwards did not play in the NAU game.
For Appalachian, it is pretty obvious what improvements must be made in order to advance to the next round. The offense needs to take better care of the football. Who knows how last week would have played out if ASU had not fumbled on their first drive. ASU might need to give the defense a rest as no scoring drive lasted longer than three minutes and eight seconds against James Madison. A problem that surfaced that has really never been a problem for a Jerry Moore led team is the special teams play. ASU had one extra point blocked another was missed due to penalty. Those two points would have been very valuable if James Madison had not fumbled late in the game. Lastly, the ASU defense must help themselves by getting opposing offenses off the field. The last two James Madison scoring drives went for 11 and 16 plays respectively. James Madison also converted on fifteen third and fourth down conversions.
Appalachian may be without the services of their all time leading rusher Kevin Richardson, who sprained an ankle in the fourth quarter against the Dukes. Richardson’s replacement Devon Moore is more than capable of carrying the load for the Mountaineers, but having the type of leadership and experience missing from the huddle will have an effect on the Mountaineers. It was Moore who caught the 20 yard pass from Armanti Edwards, which provided the Mountaineers a first and goal situation late in the fourth quarter.
The looks of this game suggests a possible battle of strengths. Eastern Washington is a type of team that throws the ball as much as anyone in the FCS. Appalachian has one of the more experienced pass defenses in the country, led by All-American Corey Lynch. ASU brings its fifth ranked rushing attack to the game against an Eastern Washington run defense that has not been tested. Appalachian throws the ball just enough to set up the running game, and the Eagles have been getting ripped all season through the air. This one just stinks of a shootout. As is always important in any game, but magnified even more in the playoffs is holding onto the ball. Turnovers are what gave Appalachian a chance to beat James Madison. Holding onto the football also means giving your defense a chance to rest before you try to score on the other team. Eastern Washington knows how to score. They have averaged 33 points a game this season and 40 points a contest in the last three games. Appalachian has been putting up numbers (41.5 points per game) just as painful to look at if you are a defensive coach. Eastern Washington has been playing playoff type games for five weeks now. They suffered their third loss in the seventh game of the year. Much has been made about the long distance the Eagles will travel before getting to Boone and the early start time. Eastern Washington will be playing a football game like its 9am. Eastern Washington played in front of an average crowd this season of 12,049, while ASU played in front of an average of 28,646 fans. This could have an impact on the game for both teams. All the pressure is on Appalachian, although it has been for the last two years. It all comes down to which defense keeps the other team from scoring. It might take 50 points by one team to win this game. If this game was going to be played anywhere else except The Rock, it would be a toss up. The home field will play a huge advantage down the stretch. The Apps will prevail in the fourth quarter once again.
The First Pick:
The other Eaglets 35