The University of Maine’s nationally ranked defense faces a record-setting offense on Saturday when the Black Bears visit Eastern Washington University for a 2 p.m. Football Championship Subdivision national semifinal at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington.
It is the first appearance in the semifinals in the 126-year history of the program for 12th-ranked No. 7 seed UMaine (10-3), while the Eagles of the Big Sky Conference (11-2) are playing in their fourth semifinal since winning the FCS title in 2010.
Fourth-ranked Eastern Washington, the No. 3 playoff seed, is the only team among 124 in the FCS that ranks in the top 25 in total offense (2nd, 538.3 yards per game), rushing (10th, 266.6 ypg) and passing (22nd, 271.7 ypg).
The Eagles’ 44.1 points per game rank fourth.
EWU set the school record for rushing yards (3,466) and rushing touchdowns (39), and their 6.78 yards per carry and 538.3 yards of total offense per game are ahead of the previous records of 6.41 (2001) and 533.5 (2013).
EWU lost All-American quarterback Gabe Gubrud to a foot injury Sept. 29, but Eric Barriere has stepped in and guided it to a 7-1 record with his arm and his legs.
He has completed 156 of 256 passes for 1,900 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he has run 83 times for 550 yards (6.6 per carry) and seven TDs.
UMaine head coach Joe Harasymiak said Barriere reminds him of Towson quarterback and Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year Tom Flacco.
“[Barriere] creates a lot of plays with his feet,” Harasymiak said. “And he can throw the ball very well. We’re going to have to be disciplined and stay in our rush lanes and contain him there. They also have some running plays [involving] him.”
Senior wide receiver Nsimba Webster (71 catches, 1,099 yds., 7 TDs) was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as was place-kicker/punter Roldan Alcobendas, who won the Fred Mitchell Award given to the best place-kicker in the FCS. He is a perfect 15-for-15 in field goals and 58-for-59 in extra points.
Senior center Spencer Blackburn, right guard Kaleb Levao and junior right tackle Chris Schlichting were Big Sky second-team selections as was senior running back Sam McPherson (174 carries, 1,288 yds., 12 TDs).
McPherson’s 35-yard TD run with 26 seconds left gave Eastern Washington a dramatic come-from-behind 34-29 win over Cal Davis in Saturday’s quarterfinal.
A balanced run game also includes Tamarick Pierce (64-509-7) and Dennis Merritt (40-326-3). Wideout Andrew Boston has 42 catches for 530 yards and three scores.
Barriere, senior fullback Henderson Belk, left tackle Beau Byus and left guard Jack Hunter were All-Big Sky third-team picks.
“Their offense does a real good job formationally,” Harasymiak said. “They do a lot of different things. They challenge you from a communication standpoint.”
Second-year head coach Aaron Best, a longtime EWU assistant, said in a news release that his offense will be tested by a UMaine defense that leads the FCS in rushing defense (68.7 ypg, 2.11 ypc), and is second in sacks per game (3.62) and ninth in total defense (293.5 ypg).
“They are physical, and they are going to be a challenge,” Best said. “They play a ton of man-to-man and rely on that front four to create chaos. And they are a confident bunch.
“If we can maximize our decision-making and know that special teams and turnovers will be a factor, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
The Eagles defense features senior tackle and Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Jay-Tee Tiuli (38 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles).
Three EWU players made the All-Big Sky second team in senior linebacker Ketner Kupp (97 tackles, 1 interception), senior cornerback Josh Lewis (52 tackles, 3 interceptions, 9 pass breakups) and freshman end Mitchell Johnson (27 tackles, team-high 7.5 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions).
Kupp made 16 tackles in the victory over UC Davis.
First-team end Keenan Williams and third-team safety Mitch Fettig are injured.
Linebacker Chris Ojoh (87 tackles, 6.5 TFL) and safety Dehonta Hayes (68 tackles) are the other catalysts on a defense that allowed 21.8 points per game. The Eagles made three interceptions in each of the past three regular-season games.
The Eagles, who shared the Big Sky regular-season title with Weber State and UC Davis, are 7-0 at home this season. Their only losses were on the road to Football Bowl Subdivision team Washington State (59-24), ranked 13th in the country, and Weber State (14-6).