Eastern Washington has reached the pinnacle of the Championship Subdivision. Sam Houston State came as close as one can without planting its flag. On Saturday in Cheney, Wash., both get an opportunity to return to the title game in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs.
The 2010 NCAA champion EWU Eagles bombarded Illinois State in last week’s quarterfinal, 51-35. Beau Baldwin’s teams are known for airing it out, ranking in the top 10 for passing yards every season from 2007 through 2012 but one. From record setter quarterback Matt Nicholls, to 2011 Walter Payton Award winner Bo Levi Mitchell, Eagle passers put up big numbers.
That makes Kyle Padron’s performance against Illinois State last week all the more impressive. Padron threw six touchdowns to tie a playoff record.
If you recognize Padron’s name, it’s because the current Eagle quarterback led SMU to consecutive bowl appearances in 2009 and 2010. Coincidentally, Padron supplanted Mitchell at SMU; Mitchell ten went on to lead EWU to the 2010 NCAA championship.
For Padron and company to duplicate that feat, it must figure out how to get their high powered offense clicking against a stout Sam Houston State defense — while also trying to outpace the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense.
Sam Houston State went unbeaten on its road to the 2011 FCS title game, before falling to champion North Dakota State. The Bearkats’ road back to Frisco was not so easily paved. Willie Fritz’s team played a pair of BCS conference opponents in the non-conference slate, Baylor and Texas A&M. Sam Houston State also dropped a Southland Conference game to Central Arkansas.
UCA’s defeat of the Bearkats gave the Bears the Southland’s automatic bid into the FCS Playoffs. The at-large berth put Sam Houston State on the visitors’ track to Frisco, which included a detour to snowy Montana State for its quarterfinal match-up.
The Bearkats handled that foray into Big Sky Country like a true championship contender, walloping the Bobcats 34-16. SHSU roared ahead 20-3 by halftime, catching Montana State off-guard with a passing attack. The Bearkats are typically a run-based offense, but countered Montana State’s efficient rush defense with quarterback Brian Bell’s arm.
Bell’s two-way abilities are a big reason SHSU is averaging 41.7 points per game. Offensive coordinator Doug Ruse can supplement a multifaceted and prolific running game with the pass. With running back Tim Flanders leading the way at 104.5 yards per game, the Bearkats are the No. 7 most productive rush offense in the FCS. Of those in the top seven, SHSU and Colgate were the only to pass with any regularity.
Bell could be called on to build upon his three-touchdown, 254-yard performance of a week ago. The Eastern Washington pass defense is ranked 83rd.
Conversely, there’s little doubt if the Eagles will go the air. Padron is passing to one of the most talented and deepest receiving corps at any level of football. Brandon Kaufman has 13 touchdowns on the season. The Eagles’ propensity for airing it out powers the EWU offense, but it will also give greedy Bearkat defensive back Bookie Sneed opportunities to make big plays. Two of his four interceptions this season were returned for touchdowns.
An Eagle win pits the last two FCS champions against one another. A Bearkat win means a rematch of the 2011 championship game. North Dakota State returned to Frisco with its defeat of Georgia Southern on Friday night. A victory on the Inferno would also make Sam Houston State unofficial Big Sky Conference champion — the Bearkats’ previous two playoff wins came over Cal Poly and last week’s aforementioned rout of Montana State.