Under the old format of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, had Eastern Washington University survived until this weekend, it would have already played in the NCAA Division I Championship game, which was held last year in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Dec. 18.
But with this year’s expansion of the playoff field from 16 to 20 teams, the No. 1-ranked and fifth-seeded Eagles found themselves locked in a semifinals brawl with defending national champion Villanova at Roos Field on Friday night.
And now, after turning back the visiting Wildcats 41-31, Eastern (12-2) is looking at nearly a three-week layoff before traveling to Frisco, Texas, to face second-seeded Delaware (12-2) – a 27-10 semifinal winner over Georgia Southern on Saturday – in this year’s Jan. 7 FCS title game that kicks off at 4 p.m. (PST) at Pizza Hut Park.
It is a lengthy stretch of idle postseason weekends familiar only to teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
So Eastern’s third-year coach Beau Baldwin plans to contact some coaching friends in the FBS ranks to help him figure out how best to utilize the downtime leading up to his team’s showdown against Delaware.
“I have thought about,” Baldwin said, when asked about the layoff – which spans the holiday season – and how he plans to balance practices with family time for himself and his players “And I’m going to make a couple of more calls in the next couple of days. I can’t call anyone who has been in this exact situation, being this is the first year being in it at our level, but I know enough coaches that have been down the road with bowl games and that sort of thing.
“I’ve already got an idea of what I’d like to do, but I want to see if there might be a few better ideas that come up over the next couple of weeks.”
The Eagles took Saturday off, with Baldwin figuring most of his players would spend part of the day watching the Delaware-Georgia Southern semifinal.
In the black
Eastern, which has played the majority of its home game in all-red uniforms, opted – for only the second time this year – to wear all black against Villanova.
When asked about his team’s fashion change, Baldwin explained it came at the request of his team captains.
“They came in and said, ‘You know, Coach, we just want to wear black,’” Baldwin said. “I was surprised by it for a second, but, actually, it didn’t totally surprise me … I know they think they look good in black.”
But Baldwin’s players had another statement to make, as well.
“With everyone talking how we camouflage, and saying we can’t win unless we’re in our all-reds on our red turf, they said, ‘Let’s wear black. Let’s go win without Taiwan (Jones) in our black jerseys. Then what are they going to say?’” Baldwin said. “That’s not me talking, that’s more the players.
“But I love their confidence, so I said, ‘Sure.’ I really don’t care.”
Taking a cue from Taiwan
The longest scoring play in Friday’s game came late in the third quarter when Eastern’s junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell hooked up with sophomore wideout Brandon Kaufman on a beautifully executed 76-yard touchdown pass.
The 6-foot-5 Kaufman caught the ball near the right sideline in stride and then outran two Villanova defenders – one of which made a diving attempt to clip Kaufman’s heels just inside the 10-yard line – to the end zone.
“I’ve been waiting all year to show my speed,” said a smiling Kaufman, who felt the defender hit his foot, but managed to high-step away from the tackle. “I heard him coming, so I did my Taiwan Jones jump and got away.”
According to Kaufman, the deep pass was something he and Mitchell had discussed on the sidelines after Villanova’s secondary had shown man coverage for the first time in the game on Eastern’s previous offensive series.
“Bo told me, ‘If they come up and press you again, then you’re just going to go, and I’ll drop in right into you and let you run.’” Kaufman said. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
Home, warm home
Mitchell, who was a prep standout at Katy High School in Katy, Texas, before spending his first two college seasons playing quarterback for June Jones at Southern Methodist University, is looking forward to returning to his home state to play in the NCAA Division I Championship – for a couple of reasons.
“I’ve already had a lot of friends hit my up and tell me they’re going to be there; and a lot of family,” Mitchell said. “I can’t wait to see a lot of guys from my old team.”
And the second reason?
“Just to go back and play in some warm weather, instead of the freezing cold,” he added.