FRISCO, Tex. – Eastern Washington University has been a fourth-down and fourth-quarter team throughout most of this magical college football season.
And the No.1-ranked Eagles were at their best in both in those situations once again Friday night, converting on a couple of crucial fourth-downs in the final period to stage a stirring late-game comeback that helped them overcome a large third-quarter deficit and capture the NCAA Division I Championship – the first in the school’s history – with a thrilling 20-19 win over Delaware.
Junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who was named the Player of the Game, threw for 302 yards and three second-half touchdowns as Eastern (13-2) climbed out of a 19-0 hole to reel in the Blue Hens in front of a Pizza Hut Park crowd of 13,027.
And those who stuck around saw an ending for the ages as the Eagles survived a confusing and lengthy officials review of Mario Brown’s 1-yard fourth-down plunge that kept a late Eastern drive alive and led to Mitchell’s game-winning 11-yard pass to Brandon Kaufman with just 2 minutes, 47 seconds left.
Officials on the field measured the ball after Brown’s short plunge and signaled a first down, but play was stopped after that for a video review of the spot of the ball, which was ultimately moved back several inches. That gave cause for another measurement, but the chains had already been moved, and when they were reset, Eastern was once again given the first down – much to the chagrin of Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, who felt the chains were not placed back in their original spots.
Three plays later, Mitchell connected with Kaufman, who caught nine passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns, in the back of the end zone to tie the game at 19. And when Mike Jarrett drilled his PAT kick between the uprights, Eastern had its biggest win in school history.
“It’s all somewhat overwhelming right now,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said after the historic victory. “I’m happy for everyone. There are just so many people that are involved in this, all the way back to strength coaches and winter workouts.
“But, ultimately, when it comes down to tonight and that type of ballgame against an incredible talented and great Delaware team, it came down to those guys on the field. Those guys never quite fighting.”
After being dominated for almost 3 ½ quarters and held to only 62 first-half yards, the Eagles finally scratched out a touchdown on a 22-yard pass from Mitchell to Kaufman with just a little under two minutes left in the third period.
That scored seemed to settle down Mitchell, who played lights out from that point on.
“When games play out like that, I don’t mind being in that position,” Mitchell said of the big deficit the Eagles were facing once again. “With the guys we have and the coaches we have, it makes it easy to deal with.
“When are back are against the wall, we know how to put our foot on the pedal and take control, because we’ve done it so many times this season. And that’s all because of Coach Baldwin. We couldn’t keep doing it if it wasn’t for him, because he’s always so cool, calm and collected.”
Keeler, despite his issues with the call on Brown’s fourth-down, gave Eastern credit for the way it came back, but also expressed disappointment in his team not making out of the first-half chances when they twice settled for field goals on long drives.
“You knew that Eastern Washington was a big play team,” he said, “and you just wait for them to make a couple of big plays. The got some momentum, and boy, it’s tough to fight momentum.
“But we has some opportunities to put the ballgame away, and we didn’t. And shame on us for not putting the ballgame away. We pretty much dominated he first half, but the concern was not having enough (points).”
With all-American running back Taiwan Jones watching once again from the sidelines with a broken foot, EWU was held to just 25 net yards rushing. But along with the production of Mitchell and Kaufman, the Eagles also got nine catches for 74 yards and touchdown from Nicholas Edwards, along with five catches for 57 yard from Brown.
Mitchell, who played his high school ball in Katy, Tex., threw for just 36 first-half yards, but completed 23 of 32 passes for 291 yards following intermission.
“We came out, and the team did what we had to do,” Mitchell said. “The O-line gave me all the time I could ask for and in the second half, the receivers just turned it up.
“My balls weren’t perfect; they weren’t. But (the receivers) made plays and did what they had to do, and we won the game because of them.”
The Eagles defense also had a say in things, after being abused in the first half.
Behind senior linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt’s game-high 18 tackles, EWU was able to stop Delware’s multi-dimensional offense on its final four possession of the game. And the biggest of those stop came when Mark Schenauer made a shoestring catch of a Pat Devlin pass on a 4th-and-10 situation but was talked a yard short of the first down with 47 seconds left in the game.
“This national championship has been a goal since I stepped foot on campus,” Sherritt said. “To finally get this with my team, it’s everything you dream of. The Buchanan Award was a great award, and it was an honor.
“But my eyes on the prize have always been on the national championship. So to finally get this, it’s unbelievable.”