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Redhawks face FCS's No. 1 team
The Eastern Washington University football team has qualified for the playoffs five of the past seven years, including three of last four.
Southeast Missouri State is making its first playoff appearance in the program's 104-year history.
That doesn't mean the Eagles -- ranked first in both major Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) polls and the fifth playoff seed -- automatically have a decisive edge over Southeast.
At least not according to EWU coach Beau Baldwin, who said he expects quite a battle when the squads square off at 3:05 p.m. Saturday in Cheney, Wash.
The second-round FCS postseason game -- both teams received a first-round bye -- features squads that are 9-2 overall after going 7-1 in their respective leagues. The winner earns a date next weekend against either fourth-seeded Montana State or North Dakota State at a site to be determined.
Southeast, ranked eighth and ninth in the two major polls, won the outright Ohio Valley Conference championship while EWU captured a share of the Big Sky Conference title. The Eagles have won seven straight games and are 5-0 at Roos Field, noted for its distinctive red turf.
"I don't think it's any sort of big advantage. Each year is its own," Baldwin said of EWU's playoff experience. "When it comes down to kickoff, whatever happened in past years doesn't matter."
Southeast and EWU have both been involved in numerous down-to-the-wire games this season, and Baldwin said he wouldn't be surprised if Saturday's affair follows that trend.
"It wouldn't shock me one bit," Baldwin said. "Neither team will be afraid if it's close in the fourth quarter."
If statistics are an indication, the matchup should be interesting. EWU has put up the better offensive numbers while Southeast has compiled the better defensive figures.
EWU ranks fourth in the nine-team Big Sky in scoring offense at 30.5 points per game. They are fifth in scoring defense, allowing 25.1 points.
Southeast averages 27.8 points and allows 20.1 points to rank third and first in the nine-team OVC.
EWU is averaging 404.3 yards and giving up 404.7 yards. Those figures are third and sixth in the Big Sky. The Eagles have been solid against the run -- Southeast's strength offensively -- allowing 125 yards rushing a contest.
The Redhawks are averaging 378.1 yards and allowing 310 yards to rank fourth and second in the OVC.
"They've got a very good football team," Southeast coach Tony Samuel said. "They're very well coached in all phases."
EWU is led by two All-Americans, junior running back Taiwan Jones and senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, along with junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a transfer from SMU who started all 19 games in which he played for the FBS program.
Jones, the Big Sky offensive player of the year, leads the league with 1,344 yards rushing after piling up 1,213 yards in 2009. He is averaging 7.6 yards per carry and has scored 14 touchdowns, 11 rushing and three receiving. He also is first in the league in all-purpose yardage with an average of 195.1 per game.
"He's a great running back, very explosive," Samuel said. "He makes great cuts, he's got great speed. When he makes his cuts, he can really get out there fast."
Mitchell is the Big Sky's No. 2 passer, having completed 210 of 358 (58.7 percent) for 2,583 yards. He has thrown 25 touchdowns and been intercepted 11 times.
Mitchell's favorite target is sophomore Brandon Kaufman, who ranks fourth in the Big Sky with 55 receptions. He averages 16.8 yards per catch and has scored 12 touchdowns.
"They're a spread offense. They've got a very good quarterback. He can throw the ball and he's got escapability," Samuel said.
Sherritt, the Big Sky defensive player of the year, is the league's No. 2 tackler with 125, an average of 11.4 per contest. He ranks 10th nationally.
"They're very solid on defense. They run well," Samuel said.
Baldwin is wary of Southeast senior tailback Henry Harris, the nation's second-leading rusher with 1,627 yards, along with dual-threat junior quarterback Matt Scheible and the Redhawks' solid defense.
"They've got a lot of talented players. They run the ball well and they can run the ball in a lot of different ways. They're tough to stop," Baldwin said. "Defensively, they're very sound. There's a reason they haven't given up more than 29 points in a game."
Baldwin points out to the Redhawks' turnover margin (plus 1.36 per game, second nationally) and their low number of penalties (4.09 per game, second nationally, 31.73 yards per game, first nationally) as keys to their success.
"They're incredibly disciplined and very well coached," he said. "I think they're very good."
The OVC has not posted a playoff win since 2000, a span of 14 games. OVC teams have especially struggled in the playoffs in recent years, losing by an average of 26.3 points in four first-round contests since 2007.
Southeast, one of two OVC squads in the postseason -- along with Jacksonville State, which hosts Wofford Saturday -- hopes to change that while continuing to make school history.
"This is a great opportunity for us to take our program to another level," Samuel said.