Eastern Holds Villanova to 230 yards and forces six turnovers to beat Wildcats 41-31 in the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Playoffs
The Eastern Washington University football team is headed to Frisco, Texas!
With a thrilling 41-31 victory in the semifinals, Eastern Washington University dethroned reigning NCAA Football Championship Subdivision champion Villanova Friday (Dec. 17) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. The game was televised live on ESPN2 to nearly 100 million homes on the new red Sprinturf surface at the "Inferno," where Eastern finished the season 8-0.
Eastern meets either Georgia Southern or Delaware on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas, in the FCS Championship game televised live from Pizza Hut Park on ESPN2 and www.espn3.com beginning at 4:05 p.m. Pacific time.
The Eagles, ranked No. 1 to end the regular season in The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, will enter the national championship game with a 12-2 record, and riding a 10-game winning streak. Villanova, ranked 10th to end the regular season, finished 9-5 and knocked off Montana in last year's FCS title game.
The other semifinal pits Georgia Southern (10-4) at third-seeded Delaware (11-2) on Saturday (Dec. 18) at 9 a.m. Pacific time on ESPNU. The Georgia Southern Eagles ended the regular season ranked 20th and have won three-straight playoff games. The Blue Hens, who received a first-round bye, were ranked fifth to end the regular season.
The Eagles held Villanova to just 230 yards of total offense, while earning 404 themselves. Eastern also forced six turnovers and had just two itself, as the Eagles are now 14-0 in the last two years when it has fewer turnovers than its opponent. Eastern now has 46 takeaways to lead FCS, including a FCS-leading 25 interceptions.
Junior Bo Levi Mitchell, who hails from Katy, Texas, completed 27-of-38 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 34 for the season to tie the EWU single-school record.
True freshman Mario Brown rushed for 104 yards on 26 carries as he filled in for All-America running back Taiwan Jones, who missed the game with a foot injury. Brown's 104 rushing yards marked the 10th individual 100+ rushing yard game of the season for Eastern Washington, and eighth in a row. Jones had all of the previous nine.
Nicholas Edwards had nine catches for a career-high 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Brandon Kaufman had eight grabs for 135 yards and a career-long 76-yard touchdown after going without a catch a week earlier. He went over 1,000 receiving yards on the season, and is Eastern's leading receiver this year with 67 catches, 1,094 yards with 13 touchdowns.
Matt Johnson and Tyler Jolley paced Eastern's defense with nine tackles each, and All-American and Buck Buchanan Award candidate J.C. Sherritt added eight. Johnson also had an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Jerry Ceja had a pair of sacks and a quarterback hurry. Jeff Minnerly chipped in an interception and broke up one of the two passes broken up for Eastern, giving the team 61 for the season to equal the school record.
Eastern held talented Villanova receiver Matt Szczur to just 67 yards of all-purpose yards a week after he had 204 yards with three touchdowns rushing, one passing and one receiving in Villanova's 42-24 victory over top-seeded Appalachian State. The Wildcats had scored 96 points in their first two playoff games, and seven of their points against the Eagles came on a kickoff return.
Villanova scored on the game's opening kickoff as Angelo Babbaro had an 86-yarder to stun Eastern's kickoff return unit that had been so solid for years. After giving up no returns for touchdowns since 1999 -- a total of 599 touchdown-less returns -- Babbaro's return was the second in the last five returns against EWU. In last week's win over North Dakota State, the Bison returned the second half kickoff for a score.
But Eastern responded in a big way with 20 unanswered points as the Eagles took advantage of a trio of Wildcat fumbles to The first score came on a five-play 63-yard drive that was capped by a 31-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Edwards. After Mike Jarrett made field goals of 24 and 31 yards, Edwards hauled in a 6-yard TD pass from Mitchell to cap an eight-play, 43-yard drive.
Villanova scored on a 70-yard drive to pull within 20-14 with 5:12 left in the half, then Jarrett missed a 39-yard field goal just before intermission. Eastern had a 233-114 lead in total offense in the first half -- including 147-20 in the first quarter -- and a nearly nine-minute edge in possession time (11:08 to 3:52 in the first quarter).
Villanova scored three times in the second half, but was never able to take the lead. Eastern scored on a 76-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Kaufman -- the 30th-longest in school history -- that gave the Eagles a 27-17 lead. Early in the fourth quarter, Eastern's Tyler Washburn picked up a fumble that was forced by David Gaylord and returned it 15 yards for a score to help the Eagles maintain a 10-point lead.
At the end of the game, after Villanova cut the score to 34-31, Eastern went on a 12-play, 63-yard drive, capped by Mitchell's record-tying 23-yard touchdown pass to Greg Herd. Villanova's final two plays of the game were a sack by Ceja and Johnson's interception.
Eastern Washington Post-Game Quotes
Head Coach Beau Baldwin
On the win and going to the national championship:
"It feels good. I'm happy for all of the people that are a part of this. There are so many people who were involved in this, including the people in the stands. It's not just about what is happening with this football team right now, but all of the growth we have made as a university and a program."
On going for fourth down on Eastern's last drive of the game:
"It was one of those deals where if we kick a field goal and even if you go up six, they (Villanova) can go down and beat you by one point. If they were going to have a chance to go down (the field) I wanted to try to go up by 10. I really thought that in some ways, it would be a lower percentage throwing a four or five yard pass on fourth-and-three when those guys are jumping things. I thought we could get someone truly more open over the top then we could a three or four yard pass. Not to mention, a three or a four yard play could be intercepted by the defense, and sometimes it could be to the house. A throw to the end zone, even if something goes wrong it's probably a touchback if they do intercept it."
On the performance of the defense:
"We have so many playmakers. It starts all the way up front. A lot of times when you have a ton of interceptions you have to look back to what you are doing up front -- whether we are getting a lot of sacks or getting to that quarterback as he is throwing it. And on the back end, with both the linebackers and in the secondary, we have a lot of team speed and athletes. We may end up giving up some yards here and there but I feel like in a long drive, I believe we are truly going to make a play because we have that good of athletes on defense. These guys, even in a bad situation and it doesn't work out our way, their attitude is to go take the field and get a stop or get a turnover. That mentality creates those big plays because they don't hang their heads in those situations, they just go."
Senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt
On going to the national championship:
"It's awesome. You can't ask for anything more, especially being my senior year. To get a shot at the semifinals at home and to get a win in front of our home crowd is great."
On the defense playing in so many close games this season:
"We wouldn't want it any other way. We feel like we thrive the best in those situations. When Coach Baldwin goes for it on fourth down, he has a lot of people screaming at him on the defense to go for it. We love the way he calls it and shows confidence in us, and we feel like that's when we are really going to do well in the fourth quarter."
"We feel confident in ourselves as a defense. We give up yards but we make it hard for people to go the full length of the field. We count on people making mistakes and it's become a mentality of our defense."
Junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell
On going to the national championship:
"It's one of those things where when this happens, you are glad for all of the seniors and for a guy like J.C., who puts in more work than anyone I've seen."
On going for fourth down on Eastern's last drive of the game:
"It's fourth down and with a great coach like Coach Baldwin he made a great call. He knew exactly what he was doing and why we were doing it. They (Villanova) jumped it and Greg (Herd) made a great play on the ball."
On his play tonight:
"I stayed inside myself -- I didn't try to go for the big plays. I have to credit my receivers. When you have Brandon (Kaufman) catch a pass and take it 76 yards to the house, Nicholas Edwards make those plays and Greg catching his at the end of the game, I may have gotten the ball to them but they made the plays. The guys made plays and got the first downs when we needed them."
After receiving its eighth berth in the playoffs, the Eagles are now 8-7 in the FCS Playoffs and will be making their first appearance in the championship game. Eastern had now made two appearances in the semifinals after winning for the second time in five trips to the quarterfinals with a 38-31 overtime victory over North Dakota State on Dec. 11. In 1997, Villanova lost in the quarterfinals 37-34 to eventual champion Youngstown State. The week after that, Eastern fell to YSU 25-14 in the semifinals . . . Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin is now 10-6-1 in 17 post-season playoff games he has been a part of at the FCS, NCAA Division II and NAIA levels . . . With 10-straight victories, the Eagles now have equaled the third-longest current winning streak in FCS (Jacksonville and Dayton from the Pioneer Football Conference also have each won 10). Eastern has out-scored its last 10 opponents 350-217, and its seven-game winning streak to end the regular season was the best among the 20 playoff teams (Lehigh won eight in a row after a first-round playoff victory). . . Following a 9-2 finish in the regular season and co-championship in the Big Sky Conference with a 7-1 mark, the Eagles were rewarded with a No. 1 ranking in The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll. An hour after that poll was released, the FCS selection committee gave Eastern a No. 5 seed and a first-round bye. . . This year's squad has surpassed the 1997 team -- which was sixth to end the regular season and fourth after the FCS Playoffs -- for the school's highest ranking ever. That squad won a pair of playoff games to advance to the semifinals and finish 12-2 . . . In the victory over North Dakota State, All-America senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt finished with a team-high 15 tackles -- the 12th performance of his career of 15 or more -- giving him 406 in his career to break the school record of 399 previously held by Greg Belzer (1997-2000). He capped his record-breaking night by forcing the fumble that was recovered by teammate Zach Johnson to end the game with NDSU at the Eastern 1-yard line. After getting eight versus Villanova, he will enter the championship game with 414 . . . Eastern All-America running back Taiwan Jones, who ranks second in FCS in both rushing yards (145.2 per game) and all-purpose yards (201.8), suffered a fracture to the base of his fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot in EWU's 38-31 overtime victory over North Dakota State Saturday (Dec. 11) in the quarterfinals. He finished with a career-high 230 yards rushing in that game, including 203 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Jones had surgery in California on Dec. 14 to insert a screw in the bone. Eastern head trainer Brian Norton said there is a slight possibility that Jones could return for the national championship game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas, if Eastern advances. Interestingly, this type of fracture is generally referred to as a "Jones Fracture," named after Sir Robert Jones, who first described this fracture pattern in 1902.