Eastern Washington running back Tamarick Pierce, top, breaks a tackle by Washington State linebacker Dillon Sherman (41) during the second half of a September 15 game in Pullman, Washington.

For the second time in three weeks in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the University of Maine is going to face one of the nation’s top offensive teams.

The Black Bears (10-3) will play Eastern Washington University (11-2) in the FCS semifinals at 2 p.m. Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington. The Eagles rank second in the nation among FCS schools in total offense, averaging 538.3 yards per game, and fifth in points scored, averaging 44.1 points.

They have an incredibly balanced offense, gaining 266.6 rushing yards and 271.7 passing yards per game, making them a difficult team to defend.

But Maine’s defense is ranked seventh in the nation in total defense, allowing just 293.5 yards per game, and leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 68.7 yards per game.

“That’s an extremely talented offense,” said Maine coach Joe Harasymiak. “And the defense is another solid defense. It’s a solid team overall and they’re playing well. They understand the scheme each side is trying to execute.”

Maine advanced to the national semifinals for the first time, defeating Weber State 23-18 on Friday in Ogden, Utah. Eastern Washington advanced to the semifinals for the sixth time in school history with a dramatic 34-29 victory over UC Davis, getting a 35-yard touchdown run by Sam McPherson with 26 seconds remaining.

Maine faced a similar offensive juggernaut in the second round of the playoffs when it took on Jacksonville State, which also averaged over 40 points a game and nearly 500 yards in total offense. Maine won that game 55-27 in a dominating offensive performance. In the quarterfinals, Maine’s defense took center stage, holding Weber State to minus-1 yard rushing and only 271 yards in total offense.

It’s that kind of performance that has people thinking Maine can win on the road again.

“They’ve got a legitimate shot,” said New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell, whose Wildcats lost 35-7 to Maine in the season opener. “Their ability to defend teams gives them that opportunity to win the semifinal game and get to the championship game.

“It’s pretty impressive what Maine is doing. The biggest thing you have to do in these games is to play complementary football. And it always starts with defense up there.”

Harasymiak knows the Black Bears have a lot to defend. “Everywhere there’s talent,” he said. “We’ll have to do a really good job.”

Sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere is a two-way threat for the Eagles. He has rushed for 550 yards with seven touchdowns and has completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,900 yards and 17 touchdowns. “The quarterback creates a lot of plays with his feet,” said Harasymiak, noting that Barriere began Eastern Washington’s game-winning 75-yard drive with a scramble for 29 yards on Saturday.

McPherson, a senior, leads the Eagles with 1,288 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Antoine Custer Jr. is next with 569 yards and eight touchdowns. Six different Eagles have scored rushing touchdowns.

Senior Nsimba Webster is the leading receiver, with 71 catches for 1,099 yards and seven touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Andrew Boston has 42 catches for 530 yards and three touchdowns. The Eagles spread the wealth, with 12 players catching touchdown passes this year.

Defensively, Eastern Washington creates a lot of turnovers. The Eagles have 18 interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns — and have recovered 10 fumbles. They rank sixth in the nation in turnovers gained. Maine, however, ranks second with 30 gained turnovers, including 17 interceptions, four of which came last week.

Maine’s defense allows 21.3 points a game, Eastern Washington 21.8. The Eagles are led defensively by senior linebacker Kenter Kupp, who has 97 tackles, including four sacks. Sophomore linebacker Chris Ojoh is next, with 87 tackles.

“It’s an extreme challenge to go 3,000 miles and play on someone else’s home field,” said Harasymiak. “We’re just excited about the opportunity to play another great team.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH


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