The Gamecocks take one of the longest road trips in school history to Cheney, Washington and will face the Eastern Washington Eagles in the FCS quarterfinals. This game is a battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Eastern Washington, similar to Eastern Illinois and recently-slain McNeese State, features a prolific passing game, and Jacksonville State has one of the best pass defenses in the country. With an equal matchup on paper and the Gamecocks playing at what EWU fans call “The Inferno”, this game has the makings for an FCS classic.
Breaking Down Eastern Washington
The Eagles had an undefeated season in the Big Sky conference and finished the regular season with an 11-2 record. Their season started of with a bang, beating then ranked Oregon State from the FBS 49-46. Their other key win was on the road against a solid Montana squad. The remainder of the Eagles’ journey to the playoffs are relatively mundane with losses to FBS Toledo and Sam Houston State, another FCS playoff team. As the Big Sky champions, the Eagles are a tough team regardless of their weak schedule. Eastern Washington is only three years removed from a national championship.
As previously mentioned, Eastern Washington’s passing game ranks fourth in the country, and Payton Award finalist quarterback Vernon Adams leads the charge for the Eagles. Adams has completed 66% of his passes en route to a successful season netting over 4,000 yards, 51 touchdowns, and only a dozen interceptions. Vernon Adams runs the ball well, gaining over 500 yards and four touchdowns. Eastern Washington has a host of receivers, including Cooper Kupp with 81 receptions, 1,400 yards, and 20 touchdowns. The freshman is in the same echelon of receivers as Erik Lora of EIU, and he still has three more years to develop. While the gaudy passing numbers are the main attraction at Eastern Washington, the Eagles are actually a balanced team with a running back by committee. The running game averages 176 yards per game to complement Adams’ average of 358 passing yards per game. The Eagles score an average of forty points per game and recently defeated South Dakota State 41-17 in the playoffs.
On defense, Eastern Washington has three players with over ninety tackles. Linebackers Ronnie Hamlin and Cody McCarthy have 114 and 91 tackles respectively. McCarthy leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. At defensive back, T.J. Lee III has 93 tackles, four fumbles, an interception, and ten pass deflections for the year. Blocking and/or reading these guys in the running game will be essential to a Gamecocks victory.
The key matchup this weekend is the Jacksonville State defensive backfield versus Eastern Washington’s four stud receivers. Vernon Adams is going to produce good numbers if his targets are open. Last week, the Gamecocks were aggressive and attacked the quarterback. This week, the coverage will have to keep the receivers close to give the defensive line more time to get to the agile Adams. If the Gamecock secondary has a game like Samford and McNeese State, it’s anyone’s game. Otherwise, the result will look like the Eastern Illinois loss.
Another important factor in this week’s game will be quarterback Eli Jenkins’ ability to stretch the field. So far, the redshirt freshman has played well in the playoffs, but with the forecasts predicting a gametime temperature of 32 degrees, he will have to stay loose to be efficient in the passing game. The Eagles are going to attack and key on James, so Jenkins will need to be the constraint that keeps the defense honest.