Eastern Washington host Northern Iowa in the first round of the 2021 FCS Playoffs on Saturday. Northern Iowa only earned entry to the postseason thanks to committee approval, despite a middling 6-5 record. The Panthers will be underdogs against an Eastern Washington team that finished 9-2, with a 6-2 record in the conference.
If there’s a slither of hope for Northern Iowa, it comes from the Eagles’ modest 3-2 mark at Cheney’s Roos Field. NIU also holds a 4-3 advantage in the all-time series between the two rivals. The winner this time will earn the dubious reward of a trip to take on the Montana Grizzlies in next week’s second round.
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The game (4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT start time) isn’t on TV anywhere, but anyone in the US can watch Northern Iowa vs Eastern Washington and every other FCS playoff first-round game live on ESPN+:
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Northern Iowa vs Eastern Washington Preview
The key to the game will be the performance of Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere. Simply put, the Eagles win whenever Barriere puts up good numbers. The Analyst’s Craig Haley detailed how “Eastern Washington is 9-0 when Barriere is above 250 passing yards and 0-2 when he’s below that mark. UNI is 0-3 when allowing more than 250 passing yards.”
NIU’s chances of keeping Barriere in check will be strong if defensive end Jared Brinkman is able to dominate the trenches. He’s been named the MVC Defensive Player of the Year for the second time in three years after a solid 2021, during which he produced a team-leading seven sacks. Brinkman is the classic high-motor, tough and resourceful pass-rusher who can move Barriere off his spot early and often.
Eastern Washington offensive coordinator Pat McCann can ease the pressure on Barriere by getting versatile running back Dennis Merritt more involved. Merritt proved his use out of the backfield by turning 28 catches into 339 yards. He’s sure to be Barriere’s go-to check-down target to beat the NIU rush.
The Panthers will likely pursue a more vertical approach when they have the ball. It will hinge on quarterback Theo Day keeping leading receiver Isaiah Weston in his sights. Weston has averaged 24 yards per reception this season, so he can take the top off a defense in an instant.
As good as he is, Eastern Washington may not fear Weston, thanks to an opportunistic secondary. The group is led by cornerbacks Marlon Jones Jr. and Calin Criner, who have combined to snatch four of the Eagles’ 12 interceptions during the regular season. This collection of ball hawks is also aided by a solid pass rush led by D-linemen Joshua Jerome and Mitchell Johnson.
The Panthers’ potent mix of rush and coverage should encourage Northern Iowa to keep the ball in the hands of running backs Dom Williams and Vance McShane. Williams topped the team’s rushing charts with 702 yards and a 6.2-per-carry average. Meanwhile, McShane scored five touchdowns from his 61 carries and showcased true breakaway speed.
On paper, Eastern Washington should cruise to a win, but NIU boasts elite playmakers on both sides of the ball, despite backing into the playoffs. That talent can key an upset.