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Updated Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 05:11 PM

Eastern Washington eyes a return to title game

By Jim Allen
The Spokesman-Review

CHENEY — One team seeks atonement while the other has its second national title in three years in its sights.

Those are two of the story lines Saturday as Eastern Washington hosts Sam Houston State in an FCS semifinal game at 1 p.m.

Sam Houston State has a chance to make amends for last season's defeat in the title game.

Eastern Washington looks for the validation that comes with repeated success at the national level. In five years, the Eagles have won 44 games — tied for third-most in FCS — set a national standard with their sophisticated passing offense and took home the big prize in 2010.

And that, as they say, is why they play the game.

"It's a lot fun and it takes a lot of work," said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin. "But it all goes into moments like this."

A big crowd at Roos Field will hope the Eagles can earn a Jan. 5 date against defending champ North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas.

Eastern (11-2) will pit its passing game against an aggressive man-to-man defense that has carried Sam Houston State to nine wins in its past 10 games.

The Eagles defense will face a Bearkats offense that ranks second in the nation in scoring at 42 points a game and owns playoff victories over Big Sky Conference teams Cal Poly and Montana State.

"But they haven't played us," said Eastern defensive end Jerry Ceja, one of 19 seniors on the team..

Ceja, the Eagles' sack leader this year with 12, sees similarities with the 2010 Eastern team.

"But I would say we might be a little more focused, with a little more cohesion as an entire team. We're more than a team, we're a family."

Those bonds never frayed despite a spate of midseason injuries at all positions on defense; they seemed even tighter through all the close wins, six of them by a touchdown or less.

A loss at Southern Utah that cost them a No. 1 ranking now seems a blessing. Since Oct. 26, the Eagles have won five straight en route to earning the No. 2 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

"Having the home crowd is huge," Eagle safety Allen Brown said.

That alone may not carry them past a Sam Houston State team that has also faced adversity.

In their Southland Conference opener at Central Arkansas, the Bearkats gave up two touchdowns in the last two minutes, losing 24-20 and putting themselves in one-and-done mode since.

"It was when we lost that game that we showed we can be beaten," said two-time All-American safety Darnell Taylor. "That changed things around for us."

Since then, the Bearkats (10-3) have lost only a nonconference game to Texas A&M and eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. They've played just three games at home all season.

Last week, they shrugged off the freezing temperatures in Montana and flattened Montana State 34-16 in one of the Bearkats' best games of the season. Cold weather beckons again today in Cheney, but doesn't seem to faze the Bearkats.

"I don't really like it," Taylor said. "But it's going to be OK if we can get back to Frisco."

That's been their solitary goal in the 11 months since a 17-6 loss to North Dakota State in the title game.

The Eagles have had the same goal.

"A hundred other teams would like to be in our shoes," said quarterback Kyle Padron.

Notes

• The teams will meet again next year in Huntsville, Texas, in the first of a home-and-home series that concludes in 2014 in Cheney.

• The schools' only previous meeting was in an FCS quarterfinal game at Cheney in 2004, when Sam Houston State rallied from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 35-34.

• The Eagles are 7-0 this year at Roos Field and 17-2 at home since the red turf was installed before the 2010 season.

Saturday

Sam Houston St. @

Eastern Washington, 1 p.m., ESPNU


KELLYGORHAM/MSU / AP
Sam Houston State wide receiver Trey Diller is part of a high-scoring offense that averages 42 points per game.




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