EWU Going To First FCS Title Game
The Eagles force six turnovers to beat Wildcats in the FCS semifinals and get four touchdown passes from Bo Levi Mitchell to gain a trip to Frisco.
By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
Cheney, WA—Eastern Washington will make their first appearance in the NCAA Division I Football Championship title game after scoring a 41-31 victory over defending FCS champion Villanova in front of 6,600 fans at Roos Field in a turnover-plagued game.
Eastern Washington (12-2) forced six Villanova turnovers and Bo Levi Mitchell threw four touchdown passes to lead the Eagles to the Jan. 7 title game in Frisco, Tx.
"It feels good”, said EWU head coach Beau Baldwin. “I’m happy for all of the people that are a part of this. There are so many people who were involved in this, including the people in the stands. It’s not just about what is happening with this football team right now, but all of the growth we have made as a university and a program."
Of the six Villanova (9-5) turnovers, four were fumbles that led to Eagle scores.
Following this game, EWU now a FCS leading 46 takeaways, including a FCS-best 25 interceptions.
EWU used the passing game and the running game from freshman Mario Brown. Brown was the starter in place of All-American Taiwan Jones, who suffering a broken foot against North Dakota State last weekend.
Brown ran for 104 yards. Mitchell passed for 292 yards.
"I stayed inside myself, I didn’t try to go for the big plays”, said Mitchell. "I have to credit my receivers. When you have Brandon (Kaufman) catch a pass and take it 76 yards to the house, Nicholas Edwards make those plays and Greg catching his at the end of the game, I may have gotten the ball to them but they made the plays. The guys made plays and got the first downs when we needed them."
The Eagles will face the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between Delaware and Georgia Southern.
Nicholas Edwards had nine catches for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Brandon Kaufman had eight grabs for 135 yards after going without a catch a week earlier.
In addition to the turnovers, the Eagles held the Wildcats to just 230 yards of offense. Wildcat quarterback Chris Whitney completed just 12 of 21 passes for 95 yards and was intercepted twice.
“We didn’t play our ‘A’ game,"' said Whitney. “You can’t come into a semifinal game, not play your ‘A’ game and expect to win.”
Villanova's Angelo Babbaro returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.
Mitchell, however, connected with Nicholas Edwards for a 31-yard touchdown pass on EWU's ensuing possession to tie the game.
Whitney fumbled on the Wildcats' first play from scrimmage, and the Eagles’ Paul Ena recovered. The Eagles drove to the 6 before Mike Jarrett kicked a 24-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead with 7:30 left in the opening quarter.
Villanova fumbled on its next series and Ena recovered again. Jarrett's 31-yard field goal gave Eastern a 13-7 lead with 2:46 left in the first quarter.
All-American Matt Szczur fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and EWU's Matt Johnson recovered. Mitchell passed 6 yards to Edwards for a 20-7 lead with 11:14 left in the half.
Szczur powered over from the 1 to cut EWU's lead to 20-14 with 5:12 left in the half. That was the score at the half.
Villanova recovered a fumble at the Eagle 33, and Mark Hamilton's 35-yard field goal cut EWU’s lead to 20-17 with 7:10 left in the third quarter.
Mitchell fired a perfect pass to Kaufman, who outran defenders down the right sideline for a 76-yard touchdown pass and a 27-17 EWU lead at the 2:15 mark of the third quarter.
Whitney scored on an option run from the one to bring the Wildcats within 27-24 just before the end of the third period.
A fumble cost the Wildcats again when Babbaro was stripped of the ball deep in their own side of the field. Eagle linebacker Tyler Washburn caught it and ran 15 yards into the end zone for a 34-24 Eagle lead with 13:56 left.
“I think the turnovers in the game really were a major factor” said Wildcat coach Andy Talley. “When we were on our back and they pulled the fumble from our running back to run it in for a touchdown, that was really a back-breaker.”
The Eagles Alante Wright muffed a punt return and Babbaro recovered at the Eagles' 14, which was originally called EWU ball but the video replay overturned the call.
Three plays later, Whitney ran it in from the two to bring Villanova within 34-31 with 7:08 left.
The Eagles ensuing drive ended with a fourth-and-four Mitchell 23-yard pass to Greg Herd in the end zone to give the Eagles the final margin.
Eastern Washington, previously made it to the semifinals once before but lost to Youngstown State in 1997. After starting the season at 0-2, the Eagles have now won 10 straight games going to the title game.
Eastern Washington improved to a perfect 8-0 now at the stadium dubbed "The Inferno," due to the red turf the Eagles now have at their home stadium.
With EWU’s win, the Big Sky Conference will have three straight title game appearances after Montana had made two losing appearances in the prior two championship games.
"It’s awesome (going to the title game)”, said All-American linebacker J.C. Sherritt. “You can’t ask for anything more, especially being my senior year. To get a shot at the semifinals at home and to get a win in front of our home crowd is great."