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Eastern Washington turns to defense, special teams in FCS playoff-opening victory over Nicholls State

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 1, 2018, 10:27 p.m.

Its offense was sputtering, so Eastern Washington manufactured points by other means.

Nicholls State looked to extend its lead to 14 points Saturday in the closing seconds of the first half, but defensive lineman Dylan Ledbetter got a hand on Lorran Fonseca’s 37-yard field-goal attempt.

The blocked football bounced to rover Kedrick Johnson, who bolted 55 yards to the south end zone as the clock hit zeroes, electrifying Roos Field’s red-clad contingent.

It sparked a second-half turnaround for the fourth-ranked Eagles, who handled No. 13 Nicholls State 42-21 in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh crap, the ball is in my hands,’ ” said Johnson, who made his first career start. “But I couldn’t have done that without the defensive line. Ledbetter had that big push and got the block.”

The Eagles’ defense wasn’t done scoring, either.

Linebacker Ketner Kupp’s 95-yard interception return in the final minutes put an exclamation point on the rout.

Third-seeded EWU (10-2) will face No. 6 seed and Big Sky Conference foe UC Davis (10-2) at 1 p.m. next Saturday at Roos Field in the FCS quarterfinals.

UC Davis, which shared the conference crown with EWU and Weber State, was dismantled 59-20 in Cheney on Nov. 10. The Aggies downed Northern Iowa 23-13 Saturday to advance.

Sam McPherson had 137 rushing yards and two touchdowns to pace EWU, which had 269 of its 431 total yards in the second half.

“We came out of halftime and got ahead, and once we got ahead, I feel like the momentum kind of switched in our favor,” EWU coach Aaron Best said.

Against a Nicholls State defense that had allowed just 94 yards a game on the ground, EWU churned out 237, the most the Colonels surrendered to an FCS team this season.

“We were able to get yards on the outside,” said McPherson, who also completed a 32-yard pass to wide receiver Andrew Boston.

EWU, which coughed up two first-half turnovers and totaled 10 penalties, trailed the Southland Conference champion 14-3 after Dontrelle Taylor’s second-quarter touchdown run.

EWU sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere struggled passing in the first half, throwing an interception on the game’s fourth play, setting up a Chase Fourcase touchdown run that gave Nicholls a early 7-0 cushion.

The Eagles had just four first-half possessions and reached the red zone twice. They were held to a field goal and had a turnover via a Tamarick Pierce fumble.

Barriere, who completed 17 of 29 passes for 162 yards a touchdown and an interception, settled down throughout the game and managed an EWU offense that hit its stride late.

His 34-yard touchdown strike to Boston in the third quarter gave EWU its first lead, 17-14, one it didn’t relinquish.

EWU scored 39 unanswered points and took a 42-14 lead before Fourcade scored on a late touchdown run.

Fourcade, the Southland Conference Player of the Year, was 17 of 30 for 146 yards and an interception, setting Nicholls State’s career passing record (7,728 yards) in the loss.

He and Taylor (112 yards) spearheaded a running game that totaled 235 yards.

Nicholls State succeeded on its first five third-down conversions but went 5 for 12 the rest of the way.

“In the second half, we couldn’t find a rhythm,” Fourcade said. “That was a great defense we faced, and a great team.”


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