We're two weeks through with one week to go before No. 1 North Dakota State and No. 3 Eastern Washington square off in the FCS national championship game on Jan. 5.
With three weeks to prepare, one can bet both coaching staffs are combing through every second of film to find that one extra advantage. Whether it's a mismatch, 1-on-1 battle or a position group needing to have a solid performance, there are a lot of key matchups that need to be won to determine the outcome of the game.
[divider]EWU VS. NDSU
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Here are five of them:
Eric Barriere vs. Jabril Cox
When facing a mobile quarterback, NDSU's sophomore linebacker has been given the task to spy. Cox did a great job of it in last year's title game versus James Madison's Bryan Schor and in this year's semifinal game against South Dakota State's Taryn Christion.
Barriere will be the biggest, and probably the fastest, challenge yet. It's been well documented that one way to beat NDSU is to spread the defense out with a quarterback that can run. Cox will play a big part in making sure Barriere doesn't pick up first downs with his feet on passing situations.
EWU's interior DL vs. NDSU's OL
The game plan for any opposing defense facing the Bison offense is never going to be complicated. Stop the run, starting with runs between the tackles, for all four quarters and you're in good position.
It's questionable if All-Big Sky DT Jay-Tee Tiuli will play after his arrest in early December. If he doesn't suit up, the Eagles will need their other defensive tackles to step up in a big way.
Sam McPherson vs. Dan Marlette
A key part in EWU's offense transforming into a more balanced, yet equally explosive, offense is the bruising running style of McPherson. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, he loves to deliver the contact.
The senior has rushed for 1,352 yards this season with 12 touchdowns. It'll be Marlette's job as NDSU's middle linebacker to get to know McPherson as he tries to establish the run game up the middle of the Bison's defense.
Darrius Shepherd vs. EWU's Secondary
As noted above, stopping NDSU's running attack is priority No. 1. But you still have to contend with quarterback Easton Stick, a Top 3 Walter Payton Award finalist who has thrown for 2,554 yards with 26 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Stick's favorite target is quite obviously Shepherd, who lines up on the outside and in the slot to create mismatches against either linebackers or safeties. Shepherd has 57 receptions for 940 yards and seven touchdowns. No other Bison pass catcher has more than 20 catches or 365 receiving yards. Take away Shepherd, and the NDSU passing attack takes a big hit.
Chris Schlichting & Beau Byus vs. NDSU's d-ends
Barriere hasn't played like a sophomore this year, but he's still a young quarterback on a big stage. Because of this, it'll be key to keep a clean pocket while the Bison defense tries to rattle him early. Schlichting and Byus, EWU's two All-Big Sky tackles, will have to contend with an NDSU defensive end group that goes five deep.
NDSU has the second most team sacks in the FCS with 43, led by All-American Greg Menard's eight. EWU is 29th in the subdivision with 1.43 sacks allowed per game (20 total).