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In the FCS Huddle: Vital to the title, a pair of freshmen

By Andrew Gaddess, FCS Assistant

Frisco, TX (Sports Network) - They are the same, but also different; like Coca Cola and Pepsi.

Delaware's Andrew Pierce and Eastern Washington's Mario Brown are both freshmen running backs, playing on the biggest stage the Football Championship Subdivision has to offer. But their respective paths to the national championship game are as individual and unique as the throat-tingling carbonation of a Coke, or the syrupy-sweet aftertaste of a Pepsi.

Pierce burst onto the scene in 2010, emerging from relative obscurity and rising quickly to prominence.

"We had committed to two running backs in that class early," explained head coach K.C. Keeler, "and we got Andrew and couldn't figure out why no one had offered him a scholarship. So he decided to come to our place and walk on and it wasn't long before you could tell that this kid is really talented."

Pierce wasted little time showing Keeler and his staff that they had made the right decision. In the first game of his career - Delaware's season-opening win over West Chester -- the freshman carried the ball 13 times for 119 yards and a score. The following week, Pierce was again excellent, rushing for 165 yards and a touchdown in the Blue Hens' 26-3 win over nationally ranked South Dakota State.

Unlike others, Pierce never hit that rookie wall, carrying the ball 301 times for 1,513 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season. He was the only freshman named to the 2010 Sports Network/ FCS All-America team, earning a third-team distinction at the running back spot.

"What's impressed me the most is the number of carries," said Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin. "As a freshman, to carry the ball that many times, that's impressive, because a lot of times a freshman will wear down a little bit, even if he is talented. He's not only a talented back, but he's durable and carried the ball a lot, so I'm impressed."

Only two backs bested Pierce in the 2010 Sports Network/ FCS All- America polls. Colgate senior Nate Eachus earned first-team honors, while Eastern Washington dynamo Taiwan Jones was named to the second team.

Jones enjoyed a spectacular season for the Eagles, racking up 1,742 rushing yards, 342 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns. His dominance and big play ability left little room for competition in the EWU backfield.

"I wasn't able to show what I could do earlier in the year," explained Mario Brown.

Brown's lack of playing time proved to be a byproduct of Jones' success. Over the Eagles' first thirteen games of the season, Brown carried the ball a total of 61 times for 229 yards. With Jones playing at a stunningly high level, there was little need to regularly hand the ball to a true freshman.

All of that was about to change.

In Eastern Washington's quarterfinal win over North Dakota State, Jones again proved irreplaceable, running for 230 yards and a score in the thrilling, 38-31, overtime victory. The moment was at once joyous and devastating, as Jones suffered a broken bone in his left foot and was declared ineligible for the Eagles' semifinal matchup with defending champion Villanova.

Without the luxury of Jones, the Eagles needed Brown, and Brown finally got his day.

"With (Jones) being hurt, unfortunately, it was hard on the team, but it just opened up the opportunity for me to come out and show what I could do and help the team," said Brown. "As a competitor I always want to play, so, basically, my mindset was: prepare myself in the summer and be able to not just be a true freshman, but be a true freshman that's a factor and a threat."

Brown didn't disappoint, rushing for 104 yards in the Eagles' 41-31 win over Villanova.

With Jones listed as doubtful for Friday's championship game, Brown's involvement once again becomes a necessity.

"Their starter, (Jones), is just a different creature," said Keeler. "I mean he is the best running back in the country, bar none. But I thought the freshman came in and did a really nice job against Villanova. It's not like they aren't gonna lose something, because, again, (Jones) was different, but if the freshman plays like he played against Villanova, then their running game will be fine."

Like Brown, Pierce also proved to be a valuable commodity in the playoffs. He ran for 88 yards and a score in the Blue Hens' opening round win over Lehigh, then totaled 90 rushing yards against New Hampshire, before racking up 186 yards on the ground in Delaware's semifinal victory over Georgia Southern.

His maturation and continued production has not been lost on Keeler.

"When you look at him now, he plays like a senior," Keeler said. "He doesn't miss protection, he runs great routes, he catches the ball, runs hard. That is probably the thing that is so surprising. I thought he was a talented player, but I didn't realize that he was gonna play with this much poise and play so error free."

When it comes to his own young back, Baldwin echoes Keeler's sentiments.

"By the time we hit the playoffs and especially since he had played a decent amount of football on special teams, I didn't even think of him as a freshman anymore," Baldwin said.

Regardless of their coaches' perceptions, Andrew Pierce and Mario Brown are freshmen; two freshmen who have blazed two entirely different paths to reach the same destination. Now that they have arrived, past exploits become insignificant. What Andrew Pierce and Mario Brown accomplish on the field this Friday night will help to inform, guide and possibly define the rest of their budding careers.

01/06 08:49:49 ET