Eastern Washington looked flat and devoid of momentum for most of the first half in the first playoff game under second-year head coach Aaron Best in Cheney, Washington on Saturday afternoon.
Dylan Ledbetter changed all of that.
The junior defensive lineman blocked the fourth field goal of his career, this one landing in freshman Kedrick Johnson’s hands. In the first start of his career, Johnson embraced the opportunity, racing to a 55-yard touchdown with zeroes on the first half clock.
That score cut the Nicholls State lead to 14-10 at the break in a second round FCS Playoff game between the champions of the Southland Conference visiting the co-champions of the Big Sky. The third-seeded Eagles surged into halftime and then rode that wave in the second half.
Sophomore Eric Barriere threw a 34-yard touchdown strike to Andrew Boston on EWU’s first offensive possession of the second half, senior running back Sam McPherson scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and senior captain linebacker Ketner Kupp sealed a convincing victory for the Eagles with a 95-yard interception for a touchdown as Eastern Washington moved on with a 42-21 win at Roos Field on Saturday afternoon.
“When you get a score when the clock reads 0:00, that’s big time,” Best said in a post-game interview with ESPN. “That sparked us.”
The Eagles moved to 10-2 this season and into the Elite Eight for the ninth time in program history, including the sixth time since 2010. Eastern will host fellow co-Big Sky Conference champion UC Davis, the sixth seed and a 23-16 victory over Northern Iowa to earn the first playoff win in program history on Saturday night.
Saturday, Eastern Washington’s revamped defense locked in and did not allow a single point for the first 28 and a half minutes of the second half. The Eagles forced the Colonels to punt three times in the third quarter before EWU defensive back D’londo Tucker forced a fumble from Dontrell Taylor and EWU DB Dehonta Hayes recovered.
On the very next play, Barriere hit Boston for a 32-yard gain to the NSU 4-yard line. McPherson’s 10th touchdown came on the next play. A two-point conversion on a pass from Barriere to tight end Jayce Gilder gave Eastern a 28-14 lead with 10 minutes to play.
McPherson’s 44-yard rip set up his 34-yard touchdown run to push the lead to 35-14. The All-Big Sky senior finished with 137 yards on 20 carries, boosting his season total 1,145 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Kupp, the younger brother of EWU legendary wide receiver Cooper Kupp who now plays for the Los Angeles Rams, put the exclamation point on EWU’s 17th all-time playoff victory.
The senior linebacker stepped in front of Chase Fourcade’s pass attempt and returned it up the sideline 95 yards for a touchdown. Kupp sauntered the entire length of the end-zone to burn more time off the clock before scoring the first touchdown of his standout career.
That score was the final of the day as the Eagles won their playoff opener for the 10th time in program history. Eastern is 11-4 at Roos Field since the installation of the blood-red turf that has become the trademark of the program.
A week ago, Nicholls State moved to 9-3 with a 49-30 win over Pioneer Football League champion San Diego. The Colonels had 606 yards of total offense and converted 10-of-13 on third down. Saturday, EWU held Nicholls to 381 yards of total offense.
Despite the fumble, Taylor paced Nicholls’ offense with 112 yards and a touchdown. Fourcade threw for 146 yards and the pick to Kupp while rushing for 89 yards on 15 carries and NSU’s other two scores.
EWU, which has not played a road playoff game since 2009, is gunning for its sixth semifinal appearance in school history, including the fifth Final Four this decade. The Eagles are the last Big Sky Conference team to win the national title, claiming the crown in 2010 in their only appearance in the title game.
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