Eagles advance to host defending national champion Villanova next week in the semifinals of the NCAA FCS Playoffs
With their backs against the wall in a snowstorm, Eastern Washington University found a way to rally in the final minutes and upend North Dakota State 38-31 in overtime Saturday (Dec. 11) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
Because the Eagles are seeded fifth, Eastern receives a home game in the semifinals next week against unseeded Villanova, a 42-24 winner Saturday over No. 1 seeded Appalachian State. Eastern will either play Friday (Dec. 17) at 5 p.m. Pacific time in a game televised on ESPN2, or Saturday at 9 a.m. on ESPNU. The announcement will be made Sunday (Dec. 12).
Junior running All-America Taiwan Jones led the Eagles with a career-high 230 rushing yards, but 138 of those came on his first four carries of the game as EWU jumped out to a 14-0 lead. He had 203 yards in the first half alone.
After North Dakota State took a 31-24 lead with 5:51 left, Eastern put together a 13-play, 90-yard drive to knot the game with 23 seconds to play on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Nicholas Edwards. Mitchell, who was 13-of-32 for 141 yards, two interceptions and three touchdowns in the game, had entered that drive with just 38 yards passing.
Tyler Hart gathered in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Bo Levi Mitchell on the first play of overtime, then linebacker J.C. Sherritt forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Zach Johnson to end the game with NDSU at the Eastern 1-yard line.
"It's going to come down to plays made on defense," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "And then you have to find a way when the opportunity presents itself on offense. Both sides were able to do that in the fourth quarter, and we were able to do that in overtime as well. That was a huge play by Bo and Tyler had to start the overtime, then the defense found a way to create a red zone turnover like they've done all year."
The Eagles, ranked No.1 to end the regular season in The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, enter next week's game with an 11-2 record and riding a nine-game winning streak. Villanova, ranked 10th to end the regular season, is 9-4 and knocked off Montana in last year's FCS title game. North Dakota State, ranked 25th in the poll, finished its season 9-5.
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). Sherritt ranks second in Big Sky history, with records dating back to 2000 when the NCAA began to recognize tackles as an official statistic.
Eastern was no stranger to narrow victories, with eight of Eastern's wins this year now coming by an average of just under seven points per game, including six decided by seven points or less. Of those eight games, the Eagles have trailed or been tied in the fourth quarter of five of them, in one they trailed in the third quarter and in the other two they were scoreless in the final stanza.
Eastern is now 11-0 in games ahead (7-0) or tied (4-0) heading into the fourth quarter, and 0-2 when behind. Eastern's only "blowouts" came in their previous four games against Portland State (50-17), Idaho State (34-7) and Southeast Missouri State (37-17), to go along with a 31-24 victory over Southern Utah.
"All year they've kind of found a way to do that," said Baldwin. "In the fourth quarter, no matter how things have gone, they find a way to compete late in the game. They did it again. To find a way to go 90 yards in those conditions is incredible."
The Eagles also survived a season-high five turnovers -- all in the second half -- having also had five in a 21-14 home win over Northern Arizona. The Eagles are now a perfect 7-0 on the red Sprinturf surface at the "Inferno."
With a steady snowfall in the second half, the Eagles had just 35 yards in the third quarter compared to just nine for the Bison. Eastern had 85 yards in the fourth and NDSU had 117 as EWU finished with 382 yards of offense to 316 for North Dakota State.
"We were up against a tough opponent in overtime," said Baldwin. "Even though we went up 14-0 I knew it was going to be a battle. You never think it would be as crazy as it was. In the second half when the snow started coming down, it had an effect on both of the offenses. That's when defenses have to step up and find little things to help you win. We had back-to-back special teams touchdowns and they had a defensive score. Obviously we have to take care of the ball better in bad weather. You may not always move it well, but you just can't lose field position and give up the ball.
"The field almost felt like a sheet of ice," he added. "It certainly slowed down some of the speed and quickness of the skill players."
Jones had a 63-yard run on his first carry to set-up a 1-yard TD pass from Mitchell to Zack Gehring, then Jones had a 69-yard run to give EWU a 14-0 lead less than six minutes into the game. Those two runs gives Jones 16 plays in his career of 60 yards or longer, and he now has 15 100-yard rushing performances in just 24 games as a running back.
"They were a better defense than those first two runs showed," said Baldwin, whose team went into halftime tied at 17. "They've had a great defense all year -- you don't give up just 16 points a game for no reason. Taiwan can do that to almost anyone at any time, but it doesn't mean it's going to keep happening. They didn't really make a lot of adjustments, they just played things a little bit better and they are good at what they do."
North Dakota started the second half with a kickoff return for a touchdown, the first one against the Eagles in 600 returns dating back to Sept. 25, 1999, when Terrence Jones from Cal State Northridge had one.
But Eastern's Jesse Hoffman countered with one of his own on the ensuing kickoff, giving EWU a 24-17 advantage. He now has three returns for a TD this season and four in his career. The starting cornerback also added five tackles, an interception and two passes broken up on defense.
All-Big Sky Conference defensive tackle Renard Williams had two sacks and four total tackles for the Eagles, and Johnson finished with 12 tackles, a pair of passes broken up and a half-sack. His twin brother Matt Johnson chipped in 10 tackles, as did Tyler Washburn.
Tyler Hart and Greg Herd each had four pass receptions for 43 and 30 yards, respectively.
More Notes: Saturday's game was the first-ever meeting between the Eagles and the Bison, with EWU making its eighth playoff appearance and NDSU its first. The Eagles are now 7-7 in the FCS Playoffs and will be making their second appearance in the in the semifinals after winning for the second time in five trips to the quarterfinals.
With nine-straight victories, the Eagles now have the third-longest current winning streak in FCS (Jacksonville and Dayton from the Pioneer Football Conference have each won 10). Eastern has out-scored its last nine opponents 309-186, 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.