Surprising Eagles Headed For Frisco
While the red turf of Roos Field might be a novelty, there is nothing novel about Eastern Washington's football, which knocked off defending national champion Villanova in the FCS semifinals
By David Coulson
College Sporting News
In a wild, wacky year of Football Championship Subdivision play, it should come as no surprise that a team that installed red turf before the 2010 season has advanced to the NCAA Division I Football Championship game.
A season ago, Eastern Washington needed an appeals committee ruling to overturn a postseason ban as part of major rules violations in the Eagle football program. But after a 41-31 victory over defending national champion Villanova, EWU is booking its flight to the title game.
When Villanova's Angelo Babbaro returned the opening kickoff of the game 86 yards for a touchdown, you had to wonder if the Eagles' seven-game winning streak on this uniquely-colored plastic surface might finally come to an end.
But Eastern Washington (12-2) battled back to force three first-half turnovers to build a 20-7 lead.
Having seen the gritty Wildcats from Villanova (9-5) battle back so many times in the past three years, including the 2009 national championship season, you kept expecting the team with the ring to get the best of the unassuming Eagles.
Remember, this was a Villanova squad we had watched dispatch Delaware, Stephen F. Austin and Appalachian State in the past three games.
What we didn't consider was that this was also the Wildcat team that had lost to Rhode Island.
A Wildcat comeback seemed to be very likely when three of EWU's trips to the red zone in the first half netted only six points. A 39-yard field goal attempt near the end of the first half by Mike Jarrett, who had hit on two earlier three-pointers, was knuckled so badly that it didn't have a chance of increasing the Eagles' lead.
But this game proved to be a microcosm of the Villanova season in so many ways.
We saw the veteran VU defense do everything it could to keep the Wildcats close, despite a 430-205 deficit in total offense and a 6-2 disadvantage in turnovers.
We watched injuries continually hamper a gutsy club that attempted to will itself to a second straight national championship.
It had to be demoralizing when all-purpose star Matt Szczur was knocked out of the game with an apparent head injury after a hit by EWU linebacker Matt Johnson early in the fourth quarter.
Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney, seemingly held together by bubble gum and bailing wire after four years of hard knocks, scored a pair of touchdowns despite being obviously hobbled.
What Whitney wasn't able to do was show enough mobility against a fierce EWU pass rush to be effective in the passing game. Whitney completed just 12-of-21 throws for 95 yards, with two interceptions.
Eagle defensive tackle Renaud Williams and company made Whitney uncomfortable all night.
Eastern Washington had injuries to overcome of its own. Taiwan Jones, arguably the best running back in FCS this season, watched the most important game in Eagle history on crutches from the sidelines.
After establishing a career best for rushing yards with 230 (213 in the first half) the week before in the 38-31 overtime win against North Dakota State, Jones broke a bone in one of his feet.
True freshman Mario Brown gave the Eagles a lift against one of the toughest run defenses in FCS, rushing 26 times for 104 yards. That gave Mitchell enough time to complete 27-of-38 yards for 292 yards and four touchdowns.
None of those throws was more important than Mitchell's last toss.
The Wildcats, showing how hard it is to dethrone a champion, sliced the lead to three points on three different occasions, the last at 34-31 on Whitney's second TD run from two yards out 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.
With the moxie of a Las Vegas high-roller, EWU coach Beau Baldwin gambled twice in a row 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.
Now the Eagles will watch the game at noon on Saturday between No. 3 seeded Delaware and upstart Georgia Southern from Tubby Raymond Field in Newark, De. to see who will move into the final spot in the championship game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Tx.
But after witnessing all that Eastern Washington has encountered in reaching the title game, you have to wonder if the Eagles are starting to think of themselves as a team of destiny.
In a year without a seemingly dominant squad in FCS, EWU showed enough grit and determination on Friday to take such talk seriously. Even without taking their red turf with them to Frisco.