Jones’ replacement keeps ground game going
There may have been some doubters in Eagle Nation when Eastern Washington took on defending national champion Villanova, ranked seventh in rush defense in the Football Championship Subdivision, without All-American running back Taiwan Jones.
Jones wasn’t among them. Neither was Jones’ replacement, freshman Mario Brown, who churned between the tackles for 104 yards, 60 in the first quarter as Eastern Washington built an early lead that it never surrendered. The Eagles went on to claim a 41-31 victory over the Wildcats in the FCS playoff semifinals Friday at Roos Field.
“He did exactly what I thought he would do,” said Jones, who missed the game with a broken bone in his foot. “The coaches pulled his redshirt for a reason (during the regular season). I’ve seen how he runs against us in practice.”
The 5-foot-9 Brown had success against the Wildcats, who entered the game allowing just 99.2 rushing yards per game.
“I knew there were some doubters and I understand why,” said Brown, who corrected his listed weight of 175 pounds to his current 183. “They haven’t really got a chance to see me this year, it’s been Taiwan. I just wanted to show my teammates and coaches that when Taiwan isn’t in we can still expect big things.”
After Villanova’s Angelo Babbaro returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown, EWU responded with a TD drive in which Brown contributed two carries for 22 yards. The Eagles converted two Wildcats’ turnovers into two Mike Jarrett field goals to take a 13-7 lead early in the second quarter. At that point, Brown had rushed for 58 yards.
“I wanted to come out firing, especially after they came out and scored really fast,” Brown said. “I needed to come out and hit them where it hurts, and that’s up the gut. People underestimate small backs and they think bigger is better. Honestly, it’s about the heart and the will, and that’s what I play with. I don’t mind my size. I just do what I do.”
Brown said Jones was constantly helping him on the sideline.
“I talked to him every chance I could,” Brown said. “I was asking him, ‘What are they doing on defense, are they over-pursuing, am I doing the right cutbacks?’ I’ve learned so much from him and I know he won’t steer me wrong.”
Next up, the national championship game.
“Who would have thought? Ten months ago I was playing high school ball and now, being at this point, it’s just amazing,” Brown said.
• Jones rushed for 1,742 yards this season before leaving last week’s playoff win over North Dakota State in the fourth quarter. He said there’s a slim chance he could play in the title game Jan. 7, but head coach Beau Baldwin said that will only happen “if it’s under the right circumstances. It would be a blessing if he does, but if he’s not he’s going to be right there with us and the guys will rally.”
Eastern’s defense limited Villanova, which had racked up 922 total yards in playoff wins over Stephen F. Austin and Appalachian State, to just 230 yards. The Eagles sacked quarterback Chris Whitney four times, limited the versatile Matt Szczur, a run/pass/receiving threat, to 67 all-purpose yards. Szczur left early in the fourth quarter with a concussion and didn’t return.
“They give you so many looks with so many different guys able to touch the ball on a given play,” EWU defensive coordinator John Graham said. “You have to be really disciplined and keep it simple for the kids and make sure they know their responsibilities and just trust it.”
EWU safety Matt Johnson shadowed Szczur, who lined up at numerous spots on the field, including quarterback in the Wildcat formation.
“We just made sure we were aware of where he was at,” Graham said. “It wasn’t going to be one person that was going to contain him, but we tried to put our better players around him.”
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