Eagles Soar To Texas
EWU will try to make the most of its fourth-quarter success and the ability to force turnovers as it challenges Delaware for the NCAA Division I Football Championship
By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
FRISCO, Tx. — In case anyone has forgotten, the FCS has one more game and the first ever game in the subdivision in the month of January when Eastern Washington plays Delaware here next Friday.
The Eagles come to this Dallas/Fort Worth suburb after defeating last year’s champion Villanova in Cheney, Wa., while Delaware earned the trip after their home victory over Georgia Southern.
My long running column has focused on teams from the West side of the Mississippi since the 2004 season. In all the time as the West columnist, I have seen several teams I cover make the national title game but thus far no team has brought home the title hardware.
This year, Eastern Washington is my hope to overcome my long running drought as they try to achieve the Big Sky’s first national title since Montana won it in 2001.
And while, I have doubted the Eagles making it this far, I think they have very good chance to win this game.
Why do I think this is might be the year for a West team?
While other teams in the past — Montana the past two years, Northern Iowa in 2005 and Montana again in 2004 — have made it to the title game, I think Eastern Washington is playing the best of any of these teams coming into the contest.
The Eagles have won 10 games in a row after starting the season at 2-2 and included a narrow three-point victory over in-state, Division II opponent Central Washington in the second game of the season, a contest played in Seattle.
The two loses for EWU were to Top-25 FBS foe Nevada to open the season and their first road Big Sky contest at Big Sky co-champion Montana State. With the 10 straight wins, EWU stands at 12-2 overall.
The Eagles ran through the remainder of the BSC schedule but not without their share of close contests.
In fact, the Eagles wins including six games decided by seven points or less. Of those eight games, the Eagles have trailed or been tied in the fourth quarter of five of them, in one they trailed in the third quarter and in the other two they were scoreless in the final stanza, but the fourth quarter appears to theirs.
“We didn’t talk about national titles or anything like that — it was all about the focus of winning the Big Sky title,” Coach Beau Baldwin said of his Big Sky co-championship team.
The Eagles are now 12-0 in games ahead (8-0) or tied (4-0) heading into the fourth quarter, and 0-2 when behind. Eastern's only "blowouts" came in games against Portland State (50-17), Idaho State (34-7) and the second round playoff contest against Southeast Missouri State (37-17).
The other two playoff contests were in doubt until the end of the game or later. In the semi-final round, EWU tripped up Villanova 41-31. The round before was much closer for EWU as the Eagles tripped up North Dakota State in overtime 38-31.
In the quarterfinal win over NDSU in a snow storm, the Eagles put together a 13-play, 90-yard drive to knot the game with 23 seconds to play on a four-yard touchdown pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Nicholas Edwards.
Mitchell, who finished the game 13-of-32 passing for 141 yards, two interceptions and three touchdowns He had entered that final drive with just 38 yards passing.
Wide out Tyler Hart caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell on the first play of overtime and linebacker J.C. Sherritt forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Zach Johnson to end the game with NDSU at the Eagle one-yard line.
It was the fifth time this season the Eagles have won after trailing or with the game tied in the fourth quarter.
In that game, second best FCS statistical running back Taiwan Jones, who averaged 7.9 yards per carry and nearly 202 all-purpose yards per game in 2010, sustained a foot injury.
Before being injured, he had rushed for more than 200 yards in the first half but missed the Villanova game and is considered doubtful for the national championship game.
Mitchell will have a return trip to the metro Dallas area. He was a highly touted transfer from FBS Southern Methodist, where he started 19 games for the Dallas school, has completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 3,194 yards, 34 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
“It’s going to be really exciting to get away from all this cold weather,” said Mitchell. “I’m really excited to go back there and play near my hometown."
Mitchell wonders if there hasn't been a bit of destiny involved.
It’s almost like it’s meant to be to play in the state I came from," Mitchell explained. "It’s a complete loop, really. I will have a lot of family and friends there who haven’t seen me for awhile, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Mitchell has an All-Big Sky wide receiver in Brandon Kaufman (67 receptions, 1,094 yards, 13 TD) as well as two other top targets in Nicholas Edwards (51 receptions, 540 yards, 6 TD) and Greg Herd (34 receptions, 341 yards, 3 TD).
In the absence of Jones, the Eagle running back spot looks to be fine even if Jones does not play Friday as freshman Mario Jones stepped up his play. He rushed for 104 yards on 26 carries in the win over Villanova, which eased a lot of the Eagles' and my concerns.
Defensively, the Eagles use a base 4-3 alignment. This side of the ball has provided a plus-12 turnover ratio. The Eagles, though, have surrendered 25.4 points-per-game.
The leaders as mentioned somewhat above in the win over NDSU include two-time Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year J.C. Sherritt at linebacker, fellow senior Matt Johnson at safety, and junior defensive tackle Renard Williams.
Sherritt has 158 tackles this season after had an All-America season like Sherritt. He has 96 tackles and five of the Eagles' impressive 25 team interceptions. Seniors Dante Colcote and Jesse Hoffman also give the Eagles experience at cornerback spot.
Has Eastern Washington ever played in a national title game before?
While this is the farthest EWU has went in the FCS ranks, the Eagles went to the national title game in the NAIA ranks in 1967.
The championship game that year was played in Huntington, W.V., where the EWU lost to Fairmont (W.V.) State 28-21.
Ironically, that year was the same year that the stadium it currently uses made its debut, and the Eagles finished 4-0 at what was then called "New" Woodward Field.
This past fall, the stadium was re-named Roos Field in recognition for the $500,000 contributed to the Eagles’ new red Sprinturf surface at the stadium by former Eagle and current NFL Tennessee Titan Michael Roos and his wife Katherine.
Much like 1967, Eastern finished 8-0 at home in 2010 and also advanced to a national championship game.
What are my thoughts on Frisco hosting the game?
I thought Chattanooga did a great job in their hosting of the game but for West teams like Eastern Washington or Montana in the past, it made for a long trip and in my opinion an unfair advantage to those that were close to that city.
I think Frisco gives a better neutral site as Chattanooga was very close to many the Southern Conference and Colonial Athletic Association schools.
Of course, if a Southland team makes it to the title game, the same argument will be there.
Just for reference, the last Southland school to make the title game was McNeese State in 2002 (a 34-14 loss to then-Gateway member Western Kentucky).
This year’s participants are nearly equal in distance away from Frisco.
Cheney, the location of Eastern Washington, is 1,871 miles away. Newark, the home of Delaware is 1,422 miles away.
If Chattanooga was still hosting the game, EWU is 2270 miles away and UD is 690 miles away.
Both participants this year would find it tough to drive to either host city.
Having the extra weeks — remember EWU and UD last played their semi-final games on December 17 and 18 respectively. This will give fans of both schools a better opportunity to find flights to the Dallas area.
While there is the advantage of a more neutral site, attendance at the game could be hurt for this advantage.
When Appalachian State won their three titles in a row, attendance in Chattanooga was over 20,000. Boone, the home of App State, is just 270 miles away. Those three title games in Chattanooga were the most attended of the 13 games that city hosted.
Another item that makes the inaugural title game attendance in Frisco lessened would be that the FBS Cotton Bowl will be played in Dallas at the same time.
This year’s Cotton Bowl has been moved from its normal New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve date to the same Jan. 7 date as the FCS title contest.
This was moved after the FCS title game date was already placed. The Cotton Bowl will be played in the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
Having the game on the same night will most likely result in less local media attention given to the game in Frisco especially since it pits a Texas school in Texas A&M against nearby Louisiana State.
But in any event, I believe this game will be played well at Pizza Hut Park and there are likely several Texas football starved fans that will make their way to the game.
What will Eastern Washington see in their opponent of Delaware?
The Eagles will see a Delaware Blue Hens team led by another FBS transfer quarterback (much like Mitchell for EWU) in Pat Devlin, who came to the Newark school from Penn State in 2009 for his junior season.
Devlin is third in FCS in pass efficiency with 155.37 this year. He is also ranks 34th in total yards with 255 per game in the FCS ranks. Devlin has thrown for 22 touchdowns and thrown just two interceptions.
Devlin spreads the ball around in his receiving corps, which includes Nihja White (55 receptions, 6 TD), Phillip Thaxton (45 receptions, 5 TD) and Tommy Crosby (38 receptions) as well as Mark Schenauer, who has caught a touchdown in each of the three Blue Hens' playoff wins.
Delaware also has a strong running game in Andrew Pierce, who averaged 108 yards per game this year.
The Blue Hens, however, are likely in the title game due to their defense, which enters the title game with a squad that has led the FCS in scoring defense the entire season.
They opened the season with a shutout, didn't allow a touchdown until their fourth game and have an outstanding 11.5-point average. Overall, the Blue Hens are fifth in total defense with 277.4 yards per game.
While I think Delaware may be a big challenge for Eastern Washington, I think they will keep the game close and given their tendency to finish strong, they might be able to pull it out in the end like they did against NDSU and Villanova.
NCAA Division I Football Championship Game Preview
Delaware (12-2) vs. Eastern Washington (12-2), Friday, Jan. 7, 7 p.m. Eastern, Frisco, Tx.
Both teams are averaging about 30 points per game. As mentioned, Delaware leads the nation in fewest points allowed with an average of 11.5 per game.
The stellar Blue Hen defense is extremely stingy in the red zone, allowing opponents to score from inside the 20-yard line only 62 percent of the time (third in the nation).
Additionally, Delaware opponents only convert 29.1 percent of their chances on third down (sixth in the nation), however, Eastern has converted its last seven fourth down attempts and is 13-of-20 for the season.
Eastern Washington, however, should test the Delaware defense, owning the 12th best scoring offense (32.29 points per game) in FCS and featuring the 19th best offense (402.1 yards per game).
The Eagles’ defense has also been impressive, ranking 41st in rushing defense (135.5) and 86th in total defense (376.1).
EWU is 27th in passing efficiency defense (113.12) despite ranking 105th in passing yards allowed per game (240.6).
Eastern Washington is also stingy in the red zone, ranking fourth in FCS by allowing opponents to score inside the 20 yard line only 63 percent of the time.
Both teams are ranked in the top six nationally in turnover margin, with the Blue Hens ranking third (plus 1.21 per game) compared to 10th for the Eagles (0.86). Delaware has only lost 11 fumbles this year and the team is tied for the national lead with only three interceptions thrown this season.
The 46 turnovers forced by Eastern Washington lead FCS, as does the team's 25 interceptions. Delaware is tied for sixth in the nation with 31 takeaways and 20 interceptions to rank third.
I think the last turnover category will play a big role in the winner of this contest. EWU will need to hold onto the ball better than they have and will also have to play better on special teams.
The Eagles allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in each of their last two playoff games and I think they will not be able to overcome this against likely the stingiest defense they will have played all season.
Even without Taiwan Jones, who in all probability will not be able to play after the broken foot; will need to keep a balanced attack of running and passing as I feel Delaware will employee.
I like the Eagles to win this game that will likely be back and forth but will probably be rather low scoring. I will take Eastern Washington by three.
Eastern Washington 23 Delaware 20.