Trailing by a touchdown with the snow-covered end zone a distant 90 yards away, Taiwan Jones huddled under a parka on the sideline with an injury and just under 2½ minutes left on the clock, even Eastern Washington University’s No. 1-ranked football team hardly looked up to the daunting challenge it was facing late Saturday afternoon.
Especially with Bo Levi Mitchell having, perhaps, his worst day as a college quarterback.
Yet, the resourceful Eagles – as they have done so often this year – managed to block out all of the adversity and find a way, marching 90 yards on the slippery red turf at Roos Field for the game-tying touchdown and then stunning North Dakota State 38-31 in overtime in the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
In a game that featured numerous big plays, massive momentum swings and an unlikely late-game drive that was capped by Mitchell’s 4-yard scoring pass to Nicholas Edwards with 23 seconds left in regulation play, fifth-seeded Eastern (11-2) managed to sidestep the 25th-ranked Bison (9-5) and advance to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for the second time in school history.
The Eagles’ game-winning touchdown came on a 25-yard pass from Mitchell to Tyler Hart on the first play of overtime. And the game ended in controversy when NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen – on a second-and-goal from the 4 on the Bison’s overtime possession – fumbled the ball into the end zone, where it was recovered by Eastern’s Zach Johnson.
Video of Jensen’s suspect fumble was automatically reviewed by NCAA replay officials, who could not find sufficient evidence to overrule the call on the field, giving EWU the ball and the victory.
The win, the Eagles’ ninth in a row, earned them the opportunity to host a semifinal game against defending national champion Villanova – a 42-24 winner over top-seeded Appalachian State – next Friday or Saturday, with the winner advancing the title game in Frisco, Texas, on Friday, Jan. 7.
“It was just crazy out there,” said Edwards, a rangy 6-foot-3 sophomore wideout, who finished with three catches on the day, including a juggling grab during Eastern’s 13-play game-tying drive that covered 40 yards and gave the Eagles a first down on NDSU’s 16.
A pass interference call on the Bison two plays later set up a first-and-goal at the 4, from where Mitchell connected with Edwards on the ensuing snap. And on the Eagles’ first play in OT, Hart came up with a terrific over-the-shoulder touchdown grab that proved to be the game-winner – thanks to senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt’s goal-line strip of Jensen, and Johnson’s recovery.
“That’s the one thing about our guys,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said. “No matter how bad it’s going, or how bad things look, to them it’s all history. It’s always in the past.
“They always think about the next situation that’s coming up and embrace the moment – which is what they did again today.”
Nobody, however, embraced the moment quite like Mitchell, who trotted onto the field for Eastern’s final regulation possession having completed just 7 of 19 passes for 38 yards, while throwing two interceptions – one of which was returned for a touchdown – and fumbling the ball away twice.
“You just have to trust yourself,” Mitchell said when asked about his mindset in the final two minutes, when he completed 6 of 13 throws – including two that led to fourth-down conversions – for 103 yards and two of his three touchdowns. “You have to have confidence, no matter what has happened in the past.
“Play in and play out, you have to believe that you’re the best. So I go out there every time thinking I’m the best and that I can do this.”
Overshadowed by all of the late-game drama was another riveting performance by Jones, the Eagles junior all-American tailback, who rushed for 230 yards – 203 of which came in the first half – and a 69-yard second-quarter touchdown, before leaving the game early in the fourth quarter with a foot injury, the severity of which won’t be known until X-rays are taken later today.
Other big plays included back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns by NDSU’s Mike Sigers and EWU’s Jesse Hoffman to open the second half, a 63-yard run by Jones on the game’s second play from scrimmage that set up the first of Eastern’s two first-quarter touchdowns and Sigers’ block of Mike Jarrett’s 44-yard second-quarter field-goal attempt that set up the Bison’s first touchdown.
Eastern’s defense also had another big day, recovering two fumbles and picking off a pass, while limiting run-happy NDSU to 188 yards on the ground.
“That’s the great thing about this team,” said Matt Johnson, the Eagles’ junior safety, who had a hand in 10 tackles. “We’ve been in this situation a lot this year, and a lot of our wins have come by a touchdown or less.
“But we never feel like we’re going to lose or put our heads down, and we didn’t again today. That’s a great (Bison) running attack – maybe the best we’ve played all year. We knew they were going to play smash-mouth and that it was going to go down to the fourth quarter to see who had the most heart.”