Eastern Washington exorcised its FCS semifinal demons.
Eric Barriere and Nsimba Webster exercised Maine’s secondary.
The quarterback-receiver combo accounted for four touchdowns in EWU’s 50-19 rout of Maine on Saturday at Roos Field, securing a trip to the FCS national title game.
Barriere completed 21 of 30 passes for 352 yards and seven touchdowns for the Eagles (12-2), who will face top-ranked North Dakota State (14-0) on Jan. 5 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Barriere’s seven touchdowns set a FCS playoff single-game record, and tied Vernon Adams’ school record, set against Washington in 2014.
Webster helped snap EWU’s three-game FCS semifinal losing streak, hauling in nine passes for 188 yards, boosting an offense that totaled 568 yards against one of the top defensive units in the country.
He tied the FCS and EWU single-game playoff touchdown receptions record.
“It all came together, and now we’re going to play for a national title,” Webster said. “We knew if we executed and did our jobs, we’d be in this position.”
In just his second year as head coach, Aaron Best has the Eagles a win away from a national title.
“We faced a stout Maine team and we protected the red turf in front of our home fans,” Best said. “We were efficient in a lot of areas and I can’t say enough. We knew they would be tough to run against, so we put in some different things.
“I didn’t even know that Eric had seven touchdown passes – that’s how focused we are during the 60 minutes of a game.”
The Eagles, who return to Frisco for the first time since 2010 when the program won its first national title, established a 21-0 first-quarter cushion by turning turnovers into points.
The first of Josh Lewis’ first two interceptions came on Maine’s first drive, putting EWU on the Black Bears’ 1-yard line.
Barriere rolled right and found a wide-open Andrew Boston on the Eagles’ subsequent play for their first score.
On Maine’s next possession, defensive tackle Keith Moore stripped quarterback Chris Ferguson and recovered the fumble, setting up a Barriere touchdown pass to tight end Jayce Gilder.
“Our offensive line did great today,” Barriere said. “We knew if they could protect, we’d pick (Maine) apart.”
Eastern’s defensive line was without Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year Jay-Tee Tiuli, an All-American nose tackle who sat out because of a violation of team rules.
But EWU, which has overcome losses to a half-dozen defensive starters this season because of injury, still disrupted Maine up front.
Eagles linebacker Ketner Kupp said he wasn’t surprised by the effort.
“All year, it’s been next-man up,” said Kupp, who had seven tackles. “Our defensive line is very deep, and they have playmakers. It was great to see young guys and role players step up.”
Maine (10-4), which led the country in rushing defense (68 yards per game), yielded a season-high 216 yards rushing to EWU, which established the pass early before going to the run game.
The Black Bears ranked second in the country in sacks (47) but came up empty Saturday.
Eastern Washington’s defense was the better of the two units, forcing four turnovers and holding run-first Maine to 154 yards on the ground while giving up 325 through the air.
Maine trailed 28-0 at halftime before scoring all of its points the third quarter, which started with EWU surrendering a safety to open the second half.
Joe Fitzpatrick’s touchdown run made it 35-19 late in the third. EWU doused Maine’s comeback hopes on the next drive, when Barriere found Webster on a 58-yard scoring connection.
Maine’s defense is dubbed “The Black Hole” but Black Bears defensive back Jeffrey DeVaughn said his team didn’t live to that moniker.
“We left plays out there,” DeVaughn said. “It wasn’t the ‘The Black Hole’ today.”
Ferguson thought his team inflicted most of its own damage.
“(EWU) played well … but it was more us,” Ferguson said.
“Those two (turnovers) are obviously on me. We can’t start that way. We put our defense in a hole, and once we got in that hole it was tough to get out.”
In the 2016 FCS semifinal in Cheney, Youngstown State scored the winning touchdown in the final seconds, a painful memory for EWU running back Sam McPherson and 26 current seniors.
Last season, EWU finished 7-4 and No. 18 in the regular-season Top 25 poll, but was snubbed from the 24-team playoff field.
After ending the past two seasons in agony, McPherson was jubilant and emotional.
“We were in tears after that 2016 game and now we are crying tears of joy,” McPherson said.
“This is just an unbelievable feeling. To do it for all the fans here, all the alumni, it’s just unbelievable.”
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