Saturday's FCS championship game between North Dakota State (14-0) and Eastern Washington (12-2) may come down to a number of critical factors. Here are three top areas to pay attention to.
North Dakota State-Eastern Washington preview, 3 keys
1.) Contain the QB
Both quarterbacks, Eastern Washington's Eric Barriere and North Dakota State's Easton Stick, are dangerous runners who can extend plays with their feet. Take a look at their rushing stats this year:
|EASTON STICK (NDSU)||ERIC BARRIERE (EWU)|
This sets up a tricky game plan for each defense, which must account for scrambles and extended coverage time downfield.
If you look at North Dakota State's few losses in recent memory — three in three years — you'll see that they've come against mobile quarterbacks that could open up the defense (South Dakota State's Taryn Christion and James Madison's Bryan Schor).
Barriere (6.7 yards per rush) fits the same mold, though he hasn't yet faced a defense as strong as North Dakota State. NDSU is second in the nation in points allowed per game (11.3) and 11th in rushing yards allowed (111.5).
"I think we've been fortunate in this playoff run, played a lot of mobile quarterbacks, to give us a look. I think Eric's a really good player and he does a lot of things running the ball that are a little bit different than the teams we played in the past," NDSU defensive end Greg Menard said Friday. "But he can throw the ball as we saw last game against Maine (seven passing touchdowns). So we've got to make sure we're on point."
On the other side, Stick is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the FCS and has only taken 11 sacks on the year. In this year's 44-21 semifinals win over South Dakota State, the senior racked up 147 rushing yards and three scores to go with 169 yards and another touchdown through the air.
NDSU has so many experienced playmakers on its offense, and Stick's versatility under center just adds another layer to their firepower. Klieman confirmed Friday that he will set no limitations on Stick's scrambles in Saturday's finale.
"Did you see the South Dakota State game?," Klieman said. "Enough said. Playbook's wide open, [Stick's] going to cut it loose."
2.) Avoid the big mistake(s)
NDSU and EWU run different styles of offense, and that shows in their average times of possession. The Bison rank 11th in the nation at 32 minutes per game, and likes to wear opponents down with a balanced run game and dissective passing attack.
Meanwhile, EWU's quick-hit, big-threat offense holds the ball for an average of 27 minutes per game, 111th in the country. Both styles have worked, as each team has dropped more than 40 points per game on opponents. So while time of possession may not be the ultimate key to success, each team must make the most of their opportunities.
That means limiting turnovers and preventing home run plays. In last year's title game, NDSU forced three turnovers and scored on a 50-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Shepherd in a 17-13 win over James Madison. EWU coach Aaron Best recognized the Bison's fundamentally sound play and said the Eagles must do the same come Saturday.
"The one thing we must do is tackle well. Dynamic plays a lot of times aren't people wide open, and it's not necessarily out-scheming somebody," Best said.
Both teams rank in the top 10 nationally in turnover margin this year and have averaged more than 13 yards per pass completion.
3.) Find a second option in the passing game
Defensive backs will have to be on high alert for one particular receiver on each sideline Saturday.
Nsimba Webster has accounted for nearly 28 percent of EWU receptions this year with 80 catches, 1,287 yards and 11 touchdowns. NDSU's Darrius Shepherd is responsible for 34 percent of team completions with 57 catches, 940 yards and seven scores.
If either team is able to neutralize one of these top targets, it could be a turning point on defense.
Look for NDSU to try to get tight end Ben Ellefson (eight touchdowns) or receiver Dallas Freeman (20 catches, one touchdown) more involved if talented EWU cornerbacks Josh Lewis and D'Londo Tucker find early success against Shepherd, one of last year's title game heroes.
For EWU, the Eagles' second leading receiver is redshirt freshman Andrew Boston (43 catches, four touchdowns). Best also indicated Thursday that he expects running back Sam McPherson to be an X-factor on the field in a variety of roles.
"He's a factotum. I learned that word in 10th grade. It was a pre-SAT prep class. I haven't been able to use that word until all of a sudden Sam McPherson comes on the spot," Best said Thursday afternoon.
Look for EWU to also run some no-huddle sets to take advantage of mismatches. Bison cornerback Jalen Allison said NDSU would put more emphasis on no-huddle defense in preparation for EWU's fast-paced attack.
"Some teams in our Missouri Valley do it, but not many," Allison said. "So we have to put a little emphasis on that. But as long as we communicate, we'll be fine."
Saturday's game kicks off at noon ET at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. North Dakota State will try for an FCS-best seventh national title in eight years, while Eastern Washington pursues its second in program history.