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Eastern Washington earns No. 3 seed and first-round bye in FCS playoffs

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 19, 2018, 12:27 a.m.

Eastern Washington’s running back Sam McPherson (20), second from right, is celebrated for a first quarter touchdown against Central Washington in the EWU/CWU game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Roos Field at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. The Eagles beat the Wildcats 58-13. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington’s running back Sam McPherson (20), second from right, is celebrated for a first quarter touchdown against Central Washington in the EWU/CWU game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Roos Field at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. The Eagles beat the Wildcats 58-13. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A year ago, it was stunned silence.

On Sunday, smiles filled Eastern Washington’s locker room during a viewing party of the FCS playoff selection show.

The Big Sky Conference champion Eagles were seeded third in the 24-team tournament and earned a first-round bye.

EWU (9-2) will face the winner of a first-round game between Nicholls State (8-3) and San Diego (9-2) on Dec. 1 at 2 p.m. at Roos Field.

Last year, EWU, which had a No. 18 ranking and 7-4 record, looked on in disbelief when its name wasn’t called.

The postseason snub was the inspiration for the Eagles’ “Leave no doubt” credo this season.

EWU assured itself a berth and high seed when it handled Portland State 74-23 on Friday night to earn a share of the conference crown with Weber State (9-2) and UC Davis (9-2), which also earned first-round byes

“The feelings were much different (following the selection) this year after seeing our name. We knew we were in, but it was a matter of where,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “Last year we were hoping to see our name anywhere, and we didn’t.

“It was a little more emotional last year than it was this year, but it’s good to see the Big Sky get three (top-eight) seeds with Weber State at two, three with us and UC Davis at six.”

Montana State (7-4) was the fourth Big Sky Conference team to earn a berth. The Bobcats will host Incarnate Word in the first round.

Center Spencer Blackburn, a starter on Eagles’ 2016 team that came a play short of reaching the FCS national title game, was happy to see EWU’s name flash across the TV screen Sunday.

“It was great, but also a little frustrating,” Blackburn said. “Because today we saw two teams with 6-5 records get in, but we were 7-4 last year.”

Defensive end Jim Townsend was happy EWU earned a bye during Thanksgiving week.

“It’s big-time,” Townsend said. “We got banged up at Portland State, so to be able to take this week off and get everyone healthy and back is going to be big.”

North Dakota State (11-0) earned the top seed, followed by Weber, EWU, Kennesaw State (10-1), South Dakota State (8-2), UC Davis, Maine (8-3) and Colgate (9-1). Each earned a first-round bye and home game in the second round.

The NDSU Bison, who’ve won six of the last seven FCS national titles, are on the opposite side of the bracket from EWU.

Weber, EWU and UC Davis were all put on the same side of the bracket, setting up two potential rematches.

If EWU and UC Davis both win their second-round games, they’ll meet again in Cheney in the quarterfinals. EWU handled the Aggies 59-20 on Nov. 10.

If Weber State and EWU win both their second-round and quarterfinal games, they’ll meet again a semifinal game in Ogden, Utah, where the Wildcats beat the Eagles in a 14-6 slugfest Oct. 13.

But first EWU has to get past one of two warm-weather teams Dec. 1 in what will likely be a chilly afternoon game at Roos Field.

Nicholls State, a team from Thibodaux, Louisana, won the Southland Conference title and began the season with a 26-23 upset of Kansas.

San Diego, winner of the nonscholarship Pioneer Football League, is led by quarterback Anthony Lawrence, who ranks second in the country in passing (3,785 yards) and first in passing touchdowns (35). The Toreros lost 54-21 to UC Davis this season.

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