EWU Rallies To Defeat NDSU In OT
Eastern Washington marches 90 yards in the final seconds to tie North Dakota State and then wins in overtime, 38-31, in a quarterfinal classic that ends with a controversial fumble
By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
CHENEY, Wa — After tying the game in the final seconds, Eastern Washington used a controversial call on a fumble to move on to the NCAA Division I National Football Championship semifinals with a 38-31 overtime victory over North Dakota State.
The fifth seeded Eagles (11-2) will host defending champion Villanova, most likely on Friday night at 8 p.m. Eastern time in the FCS semifinals. Delaware will host Georgia Southern, probably at noon on Saturday in the other half of the Football Championship Subdivision bracket.
Eagle quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to wideout Tyler Hart on the first play of overtime and Eastern Washington recovered a goal-line fumble by NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen in the other frame of the extra period.
With the Bison (9-5) facing a second-and-goal at the Eagle four-yard line, Jensen used an option play to get close to the goal line, but was hit by All-American linebacker J.C. Sherritt just short of the end zone.
The ball came loose when Jensen's hands appeared to hit the turf and EWU's Zach Johnson recovered it in the end zone.
An official review did not overturn the call and the game ended although some video appeared to show that his back was on the ground while the ball was coming out.
“The ruling on the field stood,” said NDSU head coach Craig Bohl. “That's the way it is."
Bohl said he is a proponent of replay.
"We've been with it when we played Kansas and Iowa State and Minnesota," Bohl explained. "I appreciate the replay system. Obviously it's a good thing and we were pleased it was used today.''
It was a stunning end for North Dakota State.
"It's a little shocking," said Bison junior defensive end Coulter Boyer. "We were up a touchdown up with two minutes left and we ended up losing. You go from happy and ecstatic to being a little down."
EWU's players were anything but down.
"We saw a pull I came over the top," said Sherritt. "The defensive line spilled it outside. I saw QB coming at me. We met. I drug him to the ground and the ball popped out and Zach (Johnson) came in and grabbed him.''
There was little doubt in the mind of the Eagles that the play was a fumble.
"I thought I pulled him down," Sherritt said. "I felt I pulled him on top of me so I felt it was hard for his knees to get to the ground. Zach (Johnson) said he watched it and he thought it came out before he was down or got to the end zone."
After NDSU took a 31-24 lead with 5:51 left, the Eagles put together a 13-play, 90-yard drive to knot the game with 26 seconds to play on a four-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Nicholas Edwards.
Mitchell, who was a shaky 13-of-32 for 141 yards, two interceptions and three touchdowns in the game, had entered that drive with just 38 yards passing.
Eastern Washington, however, drove 90 yards in the final 2:29 to tie it at 31-31. During the drive EWU was able to complete two fourth-down attempts to keep Eagle hopes alive.
"All year they've kind of found a way to do that," said EWU head coach Beau 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 drive left both sides impressed and one team hurting.
"That's where I'd like to give credit to them," said Bohl. "We're disappointed with it. When you get tot this level, with eight teams playing, there are great competitors out there. They did a phenomenal job on that drive."
NDSU rallied after being down a touchdown at the halftime break to tie the game at 24-24 on cornerback Marcus Williams’ six-yard interception return with 8:45 left in the third quarter.
It was one of five second-half turnovers by the Eagles, including three possessions in a row.
Jones, who had 203 yards rushing in the first half, raced 63 yards to set up Eastern Washington's first score — a one-yard TD toss from Mitchell to tight end Zack Gehring.
Jones directly put the Eagles up 14-0 on a 69-yard scoring run with 9:05 left in the first quarter.
"Even though we went up 14-0 I knew it was going to be a battle, said Baldwin. “You never think it would be as crazy as it was."
Particularly when the weather became a large factor.
"In the second half when the snow started coming down, it had an effect on both of the offenses," said Baldwin. "That's when defenses have to step up and find little things to help you win."
In this case, not only EWU's defense rose to the forefront, but so did the Eagle special teams.
"We had back-to-back special teams touchdowns and they had a defensive score," said Baldwin. "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."
NDSU's Mike Sigers, who blocked two Eagle field-goal attempts, took the opening second-half kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown as NDSU tied the game at 17-17.
Eastern Washington's Jesse Hoffman, however, took the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a score to give the Eagles a seven point edge at 24-17.
Sherritt finished with 15 tackles to become the all-time leader for the Eagles with over 400 career tackles.
"It's going to come down to plays made on defense," said Baldwin. "And then you have to find a way when the opportunity presents itself on offense."
North Dakota State had won two playoff games in a row with big fourth-quarter outbursts, but this time the Bison found an opponent that could match their late explosiveness.
"Both sides were able to do that in the fourth quarter, and we were able to do that in overtime as well," said Baldwin "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."
McNorton had 124 yards rushing and a touchdown for North Dakota State and added another score via the air.
Taiwan Jones rushed for a career-high 230 yards for the Eagles although 203 of those yards were in the first half. Jones left the game in the fourth quarter with a left foot injury.
“We're just hoping for the best (on Jones’ injury)”, said Baldwin. “He'll have an X-ray tomorrow morning."
Losing Jones, perhaps the best running back during the regular season in FCS, would leave the Eagles at a huge offensive disadvantage against the powerful defending national champions from Villanova.
"Right now our people are pretty positive about it, but we don't know for sure," Baldwin explained. "It's on the top of the (left) foot. We're hoping it's not broken. Maybe it's just a real bad bruise. It's out of our hands. We don't control it.''