Eagles Secure Share of Big Sky Title!
Eastern scores the last 27 points to cruise past Idaho State 34-7 and into the FCS Playoffs with a 9-2 record
The first goal is complete and now there is even a bigger one on the horizon for the Eastern Washington University football team.
The Eagles scored 21 points in the second quarter and went on to defeat Idaho State 34-7 Saturday (Nov. 20) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., and earn a share of the Big Sky Conference title with Montana State.
The Eagles, 9-2 and ranked a best-ever third in this past week's Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, will find out Sunday morning just where they fit into the bracket for the FCS Playoffs which begin Nov. 27. However, the Eagles are hoping to garner one of the five seeds given to teams that guarantee them a first-round bye and to host games against un-seeded or lower-seeded teams.
The bracket will be revealed at 7 a.m. Pacific time on Sunday (Nov. 21) on ESPNU, with Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin and his players watching at a gathering open to the public at the Tawanka Dining Hall on the EWU campus.
"I think we've put ourselves in a good position," said Baldwin. "That's a good situation to be in during the playoffs. The years Montana has made those deep runs in the playoffs, a lot of times they've had three-straight at home before they play in the championship. It isn't going to be easy -- we're going to play an incredibly tough opponent every week. The fact we have a chance to be a high seed and at home is a big deal."
"I feel great -- it was great to go out like this," said senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who finished with a team-high eight tackles. "But the best part about it is the fact we've put ourselves in a really good position in the playoffs. A big goal was winning the Big Sky championship, and now we get to go for the main one."
Montana State knocked off Montana on Saturday 21-16 and ended UM's 12-year hold on at least winning a share of the league title. However, Baldwin is happy to share the title with the eighth-ranked Bobcats, who handed Eastern a 30-7 loss on Sept. 25. Eastern has won seven-straight games since then.
"I'm okay sharing the title," Baldwin said. "All we can control right now is what we do -- we can't worry about what somebody else does. All I know is that our guys went 7-1 in the one of the toughest conferences in the country, and my hat is off to Montana State as well. They went 7-1 in the conference too and that's not easy to do. The fact we share the title is great."
Eastern outgained Idaho State 407-243 in total offense as junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell passed for 256 yards and four touchdowns, including a pair to Brandon Kaufman. Junior running back Taiwan Jones, a candidate for the Walter Payton Award given to the top player in FCS, rushed for 108 yards and scored on a pass reception.
It was the 13th 100-yard rushing performance in 22 career games for Jones as a running back, and his seventh this season with a current string of five-straight. Jones has now scored 14 touchdowns this season and Kaufman has 12.
Sherritt, a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player in FCS, added a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass break-up. The Eagles won the turnover battle 4-2 and are now 12-0 in the last two years when they have fewer turnovers than their opponent.
Sherritt was one of 14 seniors who were honored in pre-game ceremonies.
"I'm feeling really good and I'm happy for the players -- they really earned this," said Baldwin. "It goes back to January when they started to put in a lot of hard work. We've been through situations where we've been down late in games and they've found a way to win. To finish it like this for the seniors and our other players -- as Big Sky champions -- is huge. It isn't easy and these players earned it. My hat is off to them."
Eastern scored first on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Kaufman, but ISU knotted the score early in the second quarter. The Eagles scored the final 27 points -- including second-quarter touchdown passes by Mitchell to Kaufman (30 yards), Jones (11) and Greg Herd (31). Eastern closed the scoring with second-half field goals by Kevin Miller (48 yards) and Mike Jarrett (25).
"We just wanted to go out as winners -- that was the bottom line," added Sherritt. "We know we can't underestimate anybody -- this conference was crazy this year. I'm just proud with how we came out and stayed disciplined and got the job done."
Kaufman was the game's leading receiver with five grabs for 61 yards. Mitchell was 20-of-25 for 213 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone, and closed the game 26-of-38 for 256 yards and no interceptions.
"He played really well," Baldwin said of his first-year quarterback, a transfer from Southern Methodist University. "I worry less about the numbers he put up and more about what he was doing with the football on each snap. It was snap after snap he was taking what the defense was giving him. He threw it away when he needed to throw it away, he went downfield when he needed to go downfield and he checked it down to the backs when he needed to do that.
"He played his best football game to date in terms of operating within the offense," Baldwin continued. "He's 7-1 as a starter in the Big Sky. He's an incredibly good quarterback who is going to keep getting better with every game he plays in an Eagle uniform."
Eastern was able to play most of its available players on its roster. Thanks to a bye on Nov. 6 and an anticipated bye this week, the Eagles should head into the playoffs fresh and ready.
"I love to see it when everybody plays -- that means you've done some really good things or some really bad things," said Baldwin. "It's always great when the backups get in there and get quality reps because you never know when they will be needed."
In any event, the Eagles are looking forward to practice ahead in preparation for its extended season.
"There is a lot of work to do," Baldwin stated. "We have two weeks to prepare for our next game -- a home playoff game hopefully. We have a lot of work to do and we'll keep working to get better heading into our next game."
"There absolutely can't be a let-up and I don't think there will be," added Sherritt. "This is a unique team and I'm just excited to get after it these next two weeks."
The Playoff Picture: This year's field for the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs will include 20 teams for the first time. The pairings are announced Nov. 21 at 7 a.m. Pacific time on ESPNU (DirecTV channel 208 and Dish Network channel 141).
The Northeast and Big South Conferences will both send their regular-season champions to the postseason for the first time. Those two leagues join the Big Sky, Colonial, Southern, Southland, Patriot, Ohio Valley, MEAC, and Missouri Valley as leagues with automatic bids to the playoffs. Two conferences choose not to participate in the football championship, the Ivy League and the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
The other 10 bids will go to at-large teams. Eight teams will play first-round games on Saturday, Nov. 27. Twelve teams will receive first-round byes, and play in the second round on Saturday, Dec. 4. The quarterfinals are Saturday, Dec. 11, with the semifinals the following week. Five teams are seeded, meaning they will play home games unless playing a higher-seeded team or if they did not meet the NCAA's minimum guarantee to host.
Frisco, Texas, is the new host city for the 2010 NCAA Division I Football Championship game, which will played at Pizza Hut Park on Jan. 7, 2011. The 23,500-seat multi-purpose stadium will be the host site for the championship game for the next three years.