For the sixth time this season, Eastern rallies after trailing or tied in the fourth quarter to win the NCAA Division I Football Championship
After a season full of late-game rallies and gut-wrenching victories, Eastern Washington University football coach Beau Baldwin had a simple response following his team's 20-19 victory over Delaware in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game Friday (Jan. 7) at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
"Why wouldn't we?"
That became the mantra of Baldwin and his team, long before Friday's victory in which the Eagles scored three touchdowns in the final 16:18 of the game to rally from a 19-0 deficit and end their season with a school-record 11-game winning streak. Eastern won six games this season when it trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. But Friday's victory was by far the largest deficit the Eagles faced in those six games, and the most gratifying.
Texas native Bo Levi Mitchell was selected as the game's Most Outstanding Player after passing for all three Eastern touchdowns in the comeback. He finished with 302 yards through the air, giving him a school-record 37 TD passes for the season. Defensively, Buck Buchanan Award Winner J.C. Sherritt had 18 tackles to equal the seventh-most in school history as the Eagles held the Blue Hens scoreless on their last four possessions.
"This game wouldn't be right if that didn't happen -- if we didn't go down 19-0 and have to make a comeback," said Mitchell, who is formerly from Katy, Texas, and transferred from Southern Methodist University near Frisco. "And for these guys -- especially J.C. -- to make a stop on defense to win this game, if it wasn't like that, it just wouldn't be right."
The Eagles will celebrate the victory with a "Football Championship Celebration" on Friday, Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. Details will follow, but that will be the first time the championship trophy will be on display to the public. The late date is because of coaches being out of town making up for lost time recruiting future Eagles.
Also, orders are now being taken for Eastern's season highlights and "Road to the Championship" video productions, with an order form available at: http://goeags.com/store/FB-DVDOrderForm.pdf. The release date is scheduled for Feb. 21.
Baldwin's team found itself behind 19-0 mid-way through the third quarter and had been out-gained 337-98 at that point in total offense. Eastern dominated the rest of the game, owning a 229-90 advantage with touchdown drives of 80, 89 and 63 yards.
"In that type of ballgame against an incredibly talented and great Delaware team, it came down to those guys on the field," said Baldwin of his team, which includes just two senior starters on offense and four more on defense. "Those guys just never quit fighting."
"I'm so happy for all those guys, and especially happy for the seniors, because you knew no matter what, it was going to be their last college football game," he continued. "And with the hard work they've put in, they deserve to go out as champions, because they work like that. That's the character they have. And it was fun to watch those guys."
Amazingly, Eastern was 3-0 this season -- including its final two games -- without its All-America running back Taiwan Jones. The junior rushed for 1,742 yards and scored 17 total touchdowns in 10 full games played and parts of two others, but a foot injury ended his season against North Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
Much like the Delaware game, that overtime playoff victory over NDSU tested Eastern's mettle as the Eagles had to go on a 13-play, 90-yard drive to knot the game with 23 seconds to play in regulation. The Eagles scored on the first play of overtime, then Sherritt ended the game with a forced fumble with the Bison at EWU's 1-yard line.
Nine of Eastern's wins this year came by an average of just over six points per game, including seven decided by seven points or less. Of those nine games, the Eagles trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter of six of them, in one they trailed in the third quarter and in the other two they were scoreless in the final stanza.
"Like Bo said, we've been through a lot of tough times," explained Sherritt. "And sometimes the offense can't get going, but when the national championship is on the line against the No. 1 defense in the country, it might take a while. And I've watched him have a bad game all the way up until two minutes left when the snow's coming down and he has to go 90 yards.
"And we've always had confidence in him," continued Sherritt, who finished his career with a school record 432 tackles. "Our defense doesn't panic, because we know they're going to get it going eventually, just like they did tonight. When they had to come through, they did. Just like they have all year.
"And if we didn't believe that, we wouldn't be in the position that we are."
Post-Game Comments From EWU Head Coach Beau Baldwin, Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, Wide Receiver Brandon Kaufman and Linebacker J.C. Sherritt . . .
OPENING STATEMENT FROM COACH BALDWIN: "It's all somewhat overwhelming right now. I'm happy for everyone. I'm happy for Eastern Washington and the university and the community as a whole because there are so many people that have such a huge part in this from administration, to trainers, to fans, to equipment people. There are just so many people that are involved in this, all the way back to strength coaches and winter workouts."
Q. Bo, you told me before the game that you came down here and as much as you wished it was a business trip, you said had something to prove. Did you prove it and what was that?
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "I wouldn't say I personally did, but we came out and the team did what we had to do. And I couldn't have done anything without these guys next to me, the offensive line. The O line gave me all the time I could ask for. In the second half, our receivers just turned it up. They did everything they've been doing all year, and that's making plays. My balls weren't perfect. They weren't. They made plays and did what they had to do, and we won the game because of them."
Q. If you could issue a statement about Bo Mitchell, the player, to the Metroplex and to your old school, what would that be?
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "Thank you to everyone who got me here and taught me how to do what I do. Coach Jones, and all way back down to Coach Joseph and especially to Coach Baldwin and Coach (Zak) Hill, they got me to where I am right now."
Q. Bo, how does it feel to win a Texas high school state championship and follow it up with a national championship?
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "It's big. Texas football is big. Or, yeah, football is big in Texas. And from what happened at SMU and coming full circle like this and playing in a national championship and taking it in front of football fans, it's huge to me. Makes a state championship for me look like nothing. The national championship, this is all I could ask for. I have looked forward to this my entire life, and I'm glad I'm here."
Q. Coach, can you explain how the game took such a 180-degree turn? It was like two different games out there.
COACH BALDWIN: "We were playing a really good football team. So sometimes things don't go how you'd like them. And at different times, when two good football teams are going at it, sometimes one team gets off to a fast start and then you know the other team is going to make a run at some point. We've been on the other end of that going up 14â€'0 and knowing you're up against a good team that's going to make a run."
"So we just wanted to stay with it, and we made some halftime adjustments. We came out with the mindset, even though it wasn't a twoâ€'minute situation, to up the tempo in the third quarter play as fast we could on offense. And we felt like that was going to give us a better chance to succeed."
"We run a noâ€'huddle offense but we have a few different speeds that we can use. And we took it to a speed to where we felt like that could give us a little bit of an edge if we could play as fast as we could in the second half. I think it really allowed for Bo and the receivers to get into a nice little rhythm by playing with that tempo."
Q. J.C., this is going into your last game. You're a senior. How does it feel to end with the Buchanan award and a national championship?
J.C. SHERRITT: "This national championship has been a goal since I stepped foot on campus. To finally get this with my team, it's everything you dream of."
"And you know, like I said, that Buchanan was a great award, and it was an honor. But my eyes on the prize have been the national championship this whole year. So to finally get this, it's unbelievable."
Q. Coach, that sequence where they measured and re-measured, did you ever get an explanation on what was exactly going on or what happened out there?
COACH BALDWIN: "They were trying to figure out where the spot was. And they just wanted to get it right. And I get that. The whole idea with the replay is to make sure they get it right in big games, and that's all they were trying to do."
"It's always going to be gutâ€'wrenching for a coach during those situations. But ultimately, again, what they were doing is trying to get it exactly right. And I respect that. And I appreciate that. You just hate to see it when it's going to be about a half an inch one way or the other, and that's the hardest part to take."
"But that has nothing to do with them doing their job. They were doing exactly what they were supposed to do at that point in terms of making sure that the spot was correct."
Q. Anybody can answer this question if they want to. But Beau, you said that a team can start fast but you always know another good team is going to come back. When was it that you guys knew, 'ohâ€'oh, Delaware's in trouble?' Was there a certain play? Was there a certain time?
COACH BALDWIN: "I'll start out first. I'll give you at least the coach's answer because these guys might think they're in trouble at any time because they're so overconfident. That's a good thing."
"I don't think that I ever felt that Delaware was in trouble. I just felt like we could make a run. I really did. I felt like we could make a run. I felt like our defense was progressively getting better into the second quarter and then definitely into the second half, and I felt like offensively, if we could get into a rhythm, we could make a run."
"Shoot, Delaware was still moving the ball there on that last series. So it's not as if they were ever in trouble. I just felt like we can make this a tight game and have a chance to win in the end, even though we went down 19â€'0."
"So it did. The monkey off our back was to score that first touchdown obviously, and that was huge. And what that also does is it helps give the defense a spark, because we really hadn't done much on offense in the first half. But once you score that first touchdown, it just kind of electrifies the whole team, and then it just snowballed a little bit from there."
"But even so, it still came down to a lot of plays being made before you can truly say â€'â€' they were never in trouble. We just were able to make a play or two more at the end of the game."
BRANDON KAUFMAN: "I thought they were in trouble for sure."
COACH BALDWIN: "See, I told you. I told you. "
BRANDON KAUFMAN: "After I scored my first touchdown, I looked back at Bo and he wasn't sprinting over. He wasn't going crazy. He just looked me in the eye and shook his head, and I knew for a fact that we were going to come back on them. Bo was going to lead us, and that's what we did."
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "It's been like that all year. It's been ups and downs. And it's all a credit to the coaches. They never panic. They don't come in there and start screaming and say: We've got to do something or we're going to lose this game."
"They come in calm, cool, and collected and say: 'You know what? Go out there and do what you've been doing all year.' Eight times this year, we've been down and we've come back and won. So we knew what we could do. We knew the team we had. We knew the confidence. And as soon as we got that first touchdown, like Coach Baldwin said, it just kind of electrified us and we were ready to go."
Q. Can you talk about not only what this means to you guys in the locker room, but your university and Cheney in the Greater Spokane area.
COACH BALDWIN: "It means a lot to a lot of people. It means a ton for Eastern Washington University as a whole, and it means a lot for the community of Cheney, Spokane, the City of Spokane, and so many supporters. And it means a lot to a lot of people that are down here supporting us. I mean, it was so electrifying to come into the parking lot â€'â€' I know these players will say the same â€'â€' and see all these fans tailgating just in red as we drive up. That gives us energy, that gives us spark, and that was exciting to see. I just want to thank everyone for that support, because like I said, it's huge, and there are so many people that have allowed us to be in this position."
"It goes deeper than just the players on the field and the coaches. There are a lot of people that have put us in this situation all the way back to last January, and I say thank you to them."
"And it does mean a ton to a lot of people. And it's the type of advertising you can't put a price tag on. So it's huge for the university as a whole."
J.C. SHERRITT: "Like coach said, right now it feels unbelievable. And to bring it back home to Washington where we have great support -- and back home to our students and to Eastern Washington University -- it feels great.
Q. For Beau and any one of the players who wants to answer this: Was there a point in time where you guys just started in the playoffs really believing that you were going to win a national championship? Did you feel like you were becoming a team of destiny?
COACH BALDWIN: "It's one of those things where our guys are really good. I'm not afraid to look at the big prize in terms of at the start of the season. Our biggest goal was to win a Big Sky championship, and we put that in our vision and our goals. As long as you understand the process along the way."
"Because no one in our locker room had ever been a part of a Big Sky championship. They had been a part of playoff teams and successful teams, finishing second in the conference and going to the playoffs, but they hadn't been a part of a Big Sky championship."
"But I always try and stress â€'â€' and the seniors do a good job and the leaders do a good job â€'â€' that yes, we can look at that as being the top of the mountain in terms of our set of goals, but it's the process along the way. We only put out weekly schedules. We only put out goals for that week, once we'd set that week, and we really focus on that week."
"So I really think each week along the way in the playoffs, yes, our top goal is national title, but we really broke down each week. We really took each week as its own and said: 'Let's find a way to win this game.' Because when you're in a field of 20 â€'â€' and for us, we had a bye, so you really end up in a field of 16 -- it's not like you have to beat the 15 other teams."
"You just have to look at it with the idea that if we can win this one game, then there's eight teams left. Seven other teams are winning as well. Sometimes it gets overwhelming when you ask yourself, 'how are we going to finish one out of . . .' We don't. We just have to finish one out of the two teams playing this weekend, then there's eight, then there's four. And we really have taken that approach."
"And our players, the other thing they did, they never exhaled or felt like: 'Wow, we made it. Wow, we won a playoff game. Or wow, we're in the semifinals on ESPN.'"
"They always felt like: 'Let's find a way to win this game. We belong. It's going to be tough. It's going to be tougher along the way, but let's go win another one.' And that's where we're at."
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "To all the offensiveâ€'minded people out there, including myself, that doesn't think defense wins championships, this is the first and last time I'll say this. It's true. They win championships. Without them, we wouldn't be in this position."
"There's been plenty of times in the playoffs and the end of the regular season that we messed up on offense, that we put our defense in the hole and they put their foot in the ground and hit that pedal and came out of it."
"For it to end like this, it means everything for me and hopefully for them, because they deserve it."
Q. Bo, you talked about your receivers giving you help on a couple of passes tonight. Talk about the few passes where you kind of needed a little help, what was going on there and what was that dynamic in the game?
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "It's huge to be able to rely on your receivers like that. Sometimes you're that quarterback that has to put the ball in the perfect spot. Luckily I'm not. I can put the ball within a fiveâ€'foot radius and they're going to make that catch."
"I've seen Brandon Kaufman make 100 plays, and every single one of them just amaze me. But tonight, when he made that diving catch, I kind of stopped and looked at him, I was like: 'God, that kid is good.' He's the best receiver I've played with, hands down.
"And hands down to all the other receivers for making the plays tonight. They carried us here, and just really all of them. Hands down to (offensive linemen) Gabriel Jackson, Chris Powers, Nikolai Myers, Steven Forgette and Will Post, because they really carried us all the way here."
Q. Bo, what's with the red shoes (actually red tape, called spats) tonight?
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "I don't know. I kind of wanted to come out and do something different. A lot of people put emphasis on Delaware and everything and how big they are and everything. I kind of honestly, in my head, wanted to take the attention off them and do something to put ourselves out there and make everybody look at us."
"And I haven't done it before, and it's something I wanted to try to do, but luckily it worked out."
Q. Bo and Brandon, could you take us through the gameâ€'winning touchdown, the play call; Bo, what you saw; Brandon, just the wherewithal to get your foot down?
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "You know, the entire fourth quarter and towards the end of the third quarter, we've been running a play, and they've been running the same coverage to it nonstop, and we had three receivers on the left. They kept trying to cover our inside receiver, Nicholas Edwards, with a safety. And I told Coach: 'Hey, we hit Brandon a lot. If they come out and they try and cover that again, and that safety stays there, I'll have Nick for a touchdown.'"
"When we came out and we caught it, they ran something different. They actually bracketed him. They put two players on Brandon, but just knowing the player he is, I said I'm still going to give him the ball. I changed the route. He knew exactly what to do. He knew exactly how the ball was going to be. He ran a great route and I didn't put the ball in a perfect spot, but he made the play to win the game. "
BRANDON KAUFMAN: "He did put the ball in the perfect spot. We've been running those little posts in the end zone since the summer, since we started scrimmaging against some other colleges, 7-on-7. And for the most part, we've always hit on them. That's usually our goâ€'to play."
"And Bo just saw the way. That safety just really wasn't going to fly back. He wasn't really on his toes. And the second touchdown he gave me that post route, I knew for a fact that I put a smile on my face and I knew we were going to score on that."
"As far as getting my foot down, I don't know. Coach Junior Adams always teaches us to secure the ball and look down at the ground, look for the line, and it wasn't that nice of a play. The play was all Bo."
Q. J.C., you guys got tough in the red zone. When you guys are on your heels and they scored two field goals, talk about that.
J.C. SHERRITT: "That's kind of been a staple of our defense this year. Maybe we're going to give up 50, 60 yards. I mean, that's Delaware. That's a great team. We always just look around at each other and know that we're successful in the red zone. That's where we have a lot of success."
"And we just came through again tonight, especially in those two situations. Hats off to the corners and safeties who got thrown in man situations all night long, and just kept battling down there for us."
Q. I hate to be the guy that asks this, but it's the big question, I think. The guys you have coming back next year -- is it too soon to talk about? I'll let Beau Baldwin answer this.
COACH BALDWIN: "We're going to enjoy this right now. I told these guys enjoy this right now. But don't get me wrong. I'm excited. Obviously we lose some incredible seniors. One of them is sitting right next to me. We do lose some incredible seniors, but, yes â€'â€' but we're always excited about a new challenge. We were excited last year and we lost some amazing seniors."
"So it's one of those things that we're excited about it, but you never know where the season's going to lead you. You never know exactly. You never know injuries. All I know is we're going to find a way and the message is really going to ring true because we talked about it last year, to find a way after a successful season to change things and do things even better and different. And that's hard to do."
"That's especially hard to do now. But right now, I won't lie to you, I'm not going to give you a coach's answer like I'm ready for next year. I'm going to enjoy this right now, and these guys should, too."
BO LEVI MITCHELL: "You know, everybody out there on the field was asking me, 'hey, come back (to Frisco) next year, you're going to be back here next year.' I want to thank Frisco for all the hospitality. It was amazing. Hopefully we'll be back here next year so they can do it again."
"But just looking at the players we have coming back, it's scary. It is. It's going to be a lot of fun. Unfortunately we're losing somebody really special (J.C. Sherritt), and we have to find somebody to replace him. It's going to be hard. I don't know how many times there's been in a fourth down situation and he's made the play."
"But with the guys we've got coming back -- offense, defense, everything -- it's going to be a lot of fun, and I plan on being back here next year."
BRANDON KAUFMAN: "We're a greedy bunch. I really hope we can build off this and just keep growing together. Bo still has another year with us, and like Beau and Bo said . . ."
COACH BALDWIN: "You're not a senior. It's still Coach Baldwin to you."
BRANDON KAUFMAN: "All right. Like Coach Baldwin said, we're losing the best football player I've ever played with -- No. 4. He's my favorite football player on this team. He's my favorite football player to watch. He's the best football player I've ever played with."
"We have a really strong team coming back. We have the same receiving corps coming back. We've have Taiwan. We have the same offensive line. We have Mario Brown. We have the same exact offense. And I feel like we're a huge power."
J.C. SHERRITT: "I'm excited for where this program is headed. You have to have leaders, and you have to have followers -- guys that will get in line and do the right thing. And we have them."
"Those young guys have been great all year. I've never seen such a mature team, all the way down to the freshmen. The sky's the limit for this team coming up. I'm so excited to see where they go. I just wish I could play a little bit longer with them. But at least we got to end it the right way."