The defending national champions from Villanova cannot overcome a 6-2 deficit in turnovers as Eastern Washington holds on to clinch its first berth in the FCS title game
Special to the College Sporting News
CHENEY, Wa. ó Showing the spirit of a river-boat gambler, No. 1-ranked Eastern Washington rolled the dice several times in the second half to hang on for a 41-31 victory over Villanova in the NCAA Division I Football Championship semifinals.
Taking advantage of six turnovers, the Eagles dethroned the reigning Football Championship Subdivision champion Villanova Friday at Roos Field.
The game was televised live on ESPN2 to nearly 100 million homes on the new red Sprinturf surface at the "Inferno," where EWU finished the season 8-0.
Eastern Washington 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 7:05 p.m. Eastern time.
The No. 5-seeded Eagles will enter that 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 No. 3-seeded Blue Hens, who received a first-round bye, were ranked fifth in the polls to end the regular season.
The Eagles held Villanova to just 230 yards of total offense, while rolling up 404. EWU won the turnover battle 6-2 and is now 14-0 in the last two years when it has fewer turnovers than its opponents.
Eastern Washington now has 46 takeaways to lead FCS, including a FCS-leading 25 interceptions.
Junior Bo Levi Mitchell, a transfer from Southern Methodist, completed 27-of-38 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 34 for the season to tie the 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 broken bone in his foot.
Nicholas Edwards had nine catches for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Brandon Kaufman had eight grabs for 135 yards and a 76-yard touchdown after going without a catch a week earlier.
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 the Eagles had, giving them 61 for the season to equal the school record.
Villanova took a 7-0 lead when Angelo Babbaro returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown, but a 31-yard TD connection between Mitchell and Edwards tied it two minutes later and the Eagles never trailed again after the first of two Mike Jarrett field goals.
The Wildcats cut the lead to three points on three different occasions, the last at 34-31 on quarterback Chris Whitney's second TD run with 7:08 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But the Eagles clinched the game with a 12-play, 62-yard drive that whittled six minutes off the clock. EWU gambled twice on fourth down, including the final play of the march when Mitchell lofted a 23-yard scoring strike to Greg Herd on a pump fake and double move with 1:04 remaining.
Villanova played much of the fourth quarter without 2009 playoff MVP Matt Szczur, who seemed to suffer a head injury after a hit by Matt Johnson. Szczur, who missed seven games with double ankle sprains this season, managed just 67 all-purpose yards and one touchdown.
Whitney was also hampered by a variety of injuries as the game wore on and was an ineffective 12-of-21 for 95 yards passing with two interceptions, including one at the goal line in the fourth period.