The red-turf mystique, if it does indeed exist, will live on at least until next fall.
Eastern Washington University made sure of that at Roos Field Friday night, taking advantage of six Villanova turnovers, a disciplined defense and a big night from junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to turn back the Wildcats 41-31 in the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The win was the 10th straight for the No.1-ranked and fifth-seeded Eagles (12-2), who finished a perfect 8-0 on the red Sprinturf playing surface that was installed this summer. And it earned Eastern a berth in the NCAA Division I Championship game that will be played on Jan. 7 in Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
The Eagles’ title-game opponent will be determined today when Delaware and Georgia Southern meet in the other FCS semifinal.
But the EWU coaches and players involved in Friday’s historic win, which played out in front of a crowd of 6,600, were not concerned about who they might play in the finals. They were simply trying to soak in the enormity of the moment.
“It’s awesome,” said senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who had eight tackles as part of sound, physical defensive effort that held 10th-ranked Villanova’s option offense to just 230 total yards. “You can’t ask for anything more, especially being my senior year, to get a shot in the semifinals at home and then getting a win in front of our hometown crowd and all the people who worked so hard to get us that new turf.
“It just feels great.”
Which isn’t surprising, considering how the Eagles were able to overcome the absence of injured running back Taiwan Jones and the shock of watching Villanova Angelo Babbaro return the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
Mitchell was a major reason why, completing 27 of 38 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns, and true freshman Mario Brown filled in nicely for Jones, rushing for a career-high 104 yards on 26 carries.
Nicholas Edwards caught two of Mitchell’s touchdown passes and Brandon Kaufman broke loose on a 76-yard catch-and-run that put Eastern up 27-17 late in the third quarter.
Prior to the game, Villanova coach Andy Talley addressed EWU’s loss of Jones (broken foot) by saying he figured a team ranked No. 1 in the country probably has a backup running back that is pretty good.
“And I think they proved that tonight,” he said, in reference to Brown.
Still, despite all of the help they got from Villanova, the Eagles needed a gutsy fourth-down call – which resulted in a in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Greg Herd with 64 seconds left in the game – to put the Wildcats (9-5) away.
Mitchell admitted to being surprised when Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin, with his team leading 34-31, decided to go for the deep throw on fourth-and-5 from the Wildcats’ 23-yard line. But Baldwin was resolute about his decision.
“I thought we could get someone truly more open over the top than we could with a 3- or 4-yard pass,” Baldwin said. “Not to mention a 3- or 4-yard play could be intercepted by the defense, and sometimes it could be to the house.
“A throw to the end zone, even if something goes wrong, is probably just a touchback if they do intercept it.”
And after Herd’s big catch, the Eagles turned it over to their defense, which smothered Villanova’s option attack one last time.
With junior safety Matt Johnson shadowing Villanova’s do-everything senior wide receiver Matt Szczur, Eastern was able to keep the Wildcats in check most of the game. Szczur scored on a 1-yard run, but was limited to only 67 all-purpose yards before leaving the game with a concussion on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“I would say they probably did as good a job as anyone has this year against him,” Talley said of the Eagles defenders. “They filled really well. And once he got through the line of scrimmage, the safeties came up and were very physical. And the linebackers did a really good job, too.”
But Talley insisted it was his team’s inability to take care of the football that was the key to the outcome of the game, calling Babbaro’s early fourth-quarter fumble that returned 15 yards for and Eastern touchdown by Tyler Washburn “a real back-breaker.
“I think the turnovers were a major factor,” Talley added. “We obviously didn’t bring our ‘A’ game tonight, and I think Eastern Washington did. They played really well.
“Give them a lot of credit. They’re a top-notch football team.”