FRISCO, Texas -- Sam McPherson’s junior year ended abruptly in Grand Forks, N.D., more than a year ago and late in the regular season.
The Eastern Washington senior running back suffered a broken fibula and tore ligaments in his left ankle with one game to play in the 2017 season. Weeks later, the Eagles weren’t selected to the NCAA Division I playoff field.
“At this point last year, we didn’t even make the playoffs,” McPherson said. “I was so low. I was hurt. … We were just devastated last year that when we didn’t get in (the playoffs). … We got robbed. We should have been in.”
Eastern Washington adopted the mantra “leave no doubt” after missing the postseason last season. McPherson also hasn’t left any doubt that he’s healthy coming off the left leg injury. He’s the leading rusher for the Eagles (12-2) heading into Saturday’s NCAA Division I FCS championship game against North Dakota State (14-0) at Toyota Stadium.
“I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at right now,” said McPherson, who suffered the injury in a 21-14 victory at the University or North Dakota on Nov. 11, 2017. “The ankle feels great. The leg feels great. It’s just awesome. I can’t believe we’re at this place right now.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound McPherson has rushed for 1,352 yards and 12 touchdowns on 186 attempts heading into the title game. He’s averaging 7.3 yards per carry and nearly 100 yards per game.
Eagles head coach Aaron Best said he could tell McPherson was ready to have a strong season midway through fall camp.
“You saw just a different step,” Best said. “He hasn’t blinked since. He practices as hard as he plays.”
McPherson said he was considering redshirting at the beginning of the season, not knowing how his leg would respond coming off the injury. That doubt faded away during the first week of the regular season. He rushed for 185 yards and a touchdown on 15 attempts in a 58-13 victory against Central Washington.
In the second week, McPherson rushed for 161 yards on 22 carries in a 31-26 road victory at Northern Arizona. That performance included a season-long 94-yard run.
“That was the most carries I ever had in my career,” McPherson said of his effort at Northern Arizona.
McPherson has played a lead role in an improved Eastern Washington ground game, which is averaging 263.0 yard per game entering the championship game against NDSU. The Eagles have four players who have rushed for at least 550 yards this season, including sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere, who has rushed for 603 yards on 90 attempts.
Eastern Washington averaged 156.3 rushing yards per game a season ago.
In his second year as head coach, Best has placed an emphasis on improving his team’s ground game.
“That’s one thing that the running backs wanted to do as a group was make a statement,” McPherson said. “It’s been such a special group. … The offensive line has been blocking great.”
Eastern Washington features an experienced offensive front that has four seniors and one junior starting. Eagles senior center Spencer Blackburn is an All-American and All-Big Sky Conference performer.
Bison defensive coordinator Matt Entz has noticed a difference in Eastern Washington’s running game. The two teams played early in the 2017 season in Cheney, Wash. NDSU earned a 40-13 victory while limiting the Eagles to 70 rushing yards on 24 attempts.
Best was an offensive line coach before he took over as the head coach for EWU.
“They’re better at the run game. They’ve got five seasoned veterans up front,” Entz said. “I think coach Best has done an excellent job.”
With a balance between the run and the pass, Eastern Washington is averaging 44.5 points per game entering the championship game. The Bison defense is limiting opponents to 11.8 points per game through 14 games.
McPherson said the Eagles offense is ready for the challenge.
“They are very big up front, big and athletic, so I would compare their front seven to Maine,” McPherson said of the Bison defense. “I’d compare their (secondary) to Weber State. Those are two of the best defenses we’ve played all year.”