John Blanchette: Eastern never blinked
FRISCO, Texas – So here it is, Eastern Washington football redefined, by the Eagles themselves:
The unlikely is humdrum.
The improbable is predictable.
The miraculous is presumed.
The national championship is … theirs.
Aren’t all other descriptions irrelevant now that the Eagles have established an aerie in the treetops of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision with Friday night’s stupefying 20-19 upset of Delaware in a title game that was unlikely, improbable, miraculous?
Wait. Make that humdrum, predictable, presumed.
But the title? All theirs.
“I can’t even imagine how much this means,” said Eastern linebacker Zach Johnson. “Talking to some of the guys I played with when I first got here who have already left, I know how they feel. We feel like we should have been here and deserved it, and that now we’ll finally get the respect we deserve – and that they deserve, too.”
And the way the crown was won?
“This game wouldn’t be right if this didn’t happen,” said quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, “if we didn’t go down 19-0 and have to make a comeback.”
Not just 19-0, but 19-0 with less than 19 minutes to play and no indication that the Eagles would ever get anything going. At that point – with three minutes left in the third quarter – they still had fewer than 100 yards of offense. Delaware had gashed EWU’s defense at will. There was no spark, no tempo, no pulse. So rosy were things for the Blue Hens that spectator Joe Biden, undistinguished as a Delaware undergrad but now our vice president, could probably even envision re-election in two years.
Then running back Mario Brown got behind Delaware linebacker Paul Worrilow and Mitchell found him for a 35-yard gain – EWU’s biggest of the night that wasn’t a punt. Three plays later, the Eagles were in the end zone for the first time on a brilliant catch-and-dive by Brandon Kaufman.
Was Delaware in trouble?
“I’ll give you the coach’s answer because these guys might think (the opponent) is in trouble at any time,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin, “because they’re so overconfident. I don’t think Delaware is in trouble; I just felt like we could make a run.”
Kaufman: “They were in trouble for sure.”
Baldwin: “See? I told you.”
But, really, it was all so obvious. It had happened in the FCS quarterfinals against North Dakota State – a 90-yard drive in the snow to send the game into overtime and a goal-line stop – agonizingly reviewed – to win it. Six of their 13 victories this year found them tied or trailing in the fourth quarter.
So of course the battered defense would come up with four straight stops to close the game. And of course Eastern’s splendid receivers would turn the amazing into the routine whenever the mercurial Mitchell needed just that. And of course Mitchell’s goofy gunslinger persona would carry the day.
“After I scored my (first) touchdown, I looked back at Bo and he wasn’t sprinting over,” Kaufman said. “He wasn’t going crazy. He just looked me in the eye and shook his head, and I knew for a fact that we were going to come back on them. Bo was going to lead us, and that’s what we did.”
Given the way the normally steady, mistake-free Blue Hens lost, they could probably be forgiven for some post-game bluntness that bordered on the ungracious. Coach K.C. Keeler bitterly complained about the fourth-down spot on EWU’s game-winning drive that “dictates who wins and loses.” And when cornerback Anthony Walters was asked what made Kaufman and Co. so tough to cover, the answer was chilling.
“I don’t think they were,” he said.
“We lost one of our players, Jake Giusti, to a clipping and kind of put us in a bind on what personnel packages we could run. We ended up running some packages that took me off (Kaufman) and put us in a lot of zone.”
They lost because of an injured nickel back? The Eags will see that and raise them a Taiwan Jones.
Let’s be real: the Blue Hens blinked. Eastern never did, all year.
Now they’re national champions, a first for EWU as a Division I school. Their program – long respectable – will be appraised differently.
“No, I don’t think I will,” countered Mitchell. “If we get the mentality that we’re great, we could lose what we have. I want to make sure we get back to this point.”
J.C. Sherritt, the heart-and-soul linebacker and a senior, could afford to be a little more grand.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “I’m so excited to see where they go. I just wish I could play a little bit longer with them. But at least we got to end it the right way.”
Doesn’t seem like the end, now that the improbable is predictable.