FRISCO, Texas – So was it or wasn’t it? A first down, that is.
Delaware coach K.C. Keeler was adamant: It wasn’t.
Eastern Washington running back Mario Brown was just as sure: It was.
The only people who counted in the equation were the game officials on the field and in the replay booth – and a chain crew put in an impossible situation. And in the end, it was their determination that Brown had indeed made enough – by mere inches – to keep EWU’s winning touchdown drive alive in the Eagles’ 20-19 triumph in Friday night’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title game at Pizza Hut Park.
“I knew where I was at, and it was as first down,” insisted Brown, the heady freshman who has filled in for the remarkable, but injured, Taiwan Jones on the last two steps to the title.
“I knew I poked through there. So I didn’t have no doubt in my mind it was a first. It was a matter of the refs placing the ball in the right spot and just keeping it honest.”
Keeler was intractable.
“We stopped them,” he said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
It was fourth-and-1 at the Delaware 23-yard line, with just more than 31/2 minutes remaining. Running out of an I-formation, Brown burrowed into the line and appeared to have made the first down.
“The way the ball was spotted originally, it was a first down,” Keeler agreed. “But the chain was not on the 22 – the chain was past the 22. That’s why as soon as (the replay official) said the ball’s put back on the 22, we knew we had stopped them and not game over, but close to over.”
But the officials also had to remeasure – and by that time, the crew had moved the chain and, most importantly, the clip that’s used to establish the position of the chains.
“And they had no idea where to put the chains back from the previous play,” Keeler said. “So they guessed.”
Whatever the process, the remeasurement produced the same outcome: first down. The delay took more than six minutes, but three plays later, quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell hit Brandon Kaufman with an 11-yard touchdown pass and Mike Jarrett booted through the winning PAT.
“It’s always going to be gut-wrenching for a coach during those situations,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin. “But what they’re trying to do is get it exactly right and I respect that. You just hate to see it when it’s going to be a half an inch one way or another.”
The parking lot tailgate party was a happy reunion for members of the 1979 Eagles, the first Eastern team to move up from NAIA and play an NCAA Division I-AA schedule, and who came from as far away as New York and Florida to watch the game.
“It’s so great to see how far the program has come, said Bob Shoemaker, who stood with fellow teammates Jay Lemcke, Greg Garske and Ken Wilson—among the first players to get full-ride scholarships at Eastern.
“It gives you chills to see this,” said Lemcke, looking out over a parking lot full of fans in red and white EWU shirts.
Forty feet away, an assistant coach from those early teams, Larry Hattemer, gathered a group of old EWU assistants for a photo: J.D. Sollars, Jerry Graybeal, Jim McElwain (the current offensive coordinator at Alabama) and Tom Mason. Hattemer said he only wished that former Head Coach Dick Zornes, who was ill, could have made the trip, too.
“There are really only a handful of us who know what we went through in 1979,” Hattamer said. “We had nothing. We had twenty scholarships and just a few coaches.”
To be in the national championship thirty years later, he said, “is just a great scene.”
GREAT CATCH, BAD RESULT
Delaware’s senior quarterback Pat Devlin had another solid game on Friday, completing 22 of 34 passes for 220 yards, with only one interception.
But he would probably like to have his last throw back, after forcing receiver Mark Schenauer to make a shoestring on a 4th-and-10 situation on the Blue Hens’ final drive of the game.
Because of making such an awkward catch, Shenauer was unable to keep his balance and ended falling down a yard short of the first down.
Devlin took the blame for the low throw, saying the pressure from an all-out Eastern blitz forced him to rush things.
“I just didn’t get enough steam on it, and it kind of dropped off the table at the last second,” Delvin said of his weak pass. “Shene made a heck of catch from what everyone said, but just a little short.”
THIRD AND SHORTS
Friday’s victory allowed Eastern Washington to close the season with a 11-game winning streak. … The national champion was the Eagles first in any sport at the NCAA Division I level. … Delaware coach K.C. Keeler was making his eight appearance in a national championship game – five as an NCAA Division III coach and three at the NCAA Division I level – but his record in those title games fell to 1-7 with Friday’s loss. … Eastern’s three second-half scoring drives covered 80, 89 and 63 yards. … Delaware running back Andrew Pierce rushed for 142 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries and topped the 100-yard mark for the seventh time this season.