Joe Biden appeared incredulous.
The then-Vice President looked on among a throng of Delaware fans and Secret Service members at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, as the Blue Hens fumbled away a 19-0 lead to Eastern Washington in the Football Championship Subdivision title game.
Ten years before winning a presidential election, Biden witnessed EWU revert to its usual second-half heroics to cap its magical 2010 season, handing his beloved alma mater a heartbreaking loss in the process.
Bo Levi Mitchell – now the Canadian Football League’s top quarterback – connected with short-time NFL receiver Brandon Kaufman on an 11-yard go-ahead touchdown pass in the final minutes to give EWU a 20-19 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
The Eagles’ defense tightened up on the game’s final drive, preserving the Cheney school’s first national championship.
Former EWU and Delaware players recently reflected on the wild Jan. 7, 2011 game.
The top-ranked but fifth-seeded Eagles (12-2) dispatched defending national champion Villanova 41-31 in Cheney, earning a date with Colonial Athletic Conference champion and third-seeded Delaware (12-2), which beat Georgia Southern 29-10 to earn its second FCS title game appearance in four years. Two of the most physical and offensively balanced teams in the country, EWU had more big-play ability than the grind-it-out Blue Hens, despite the loss of the country’s most electric player in running back and future NFL draft pick Taiwan Jones, injured in a FCS quarterfinal win against North Dakota State. Delaware had an NFL prospect of its own in quarterback Patrick Devlin, who spent five years bouncing around the league, and several others who eventually had NFL stints.
Bo Levi Mitchell: “We heard all the (Delaware) hype. Their nationally recognized players, a good quarterback in Devlin. And for me, personally, it was a homecoming since I’m from Texas and played at Southern Methodist before transferring to EWU, so I wanted to ball out in front of my friends and family.”
Brandon Kaufman: “I remember never feeling more prepared. No real nerves. We watched film on (Delaware) for about a month. It was an easy feeling, the last game of the year.”
Renard Williams (EWU defensive tackle): “We knew we were about to go up against a good offensive line and knew we had to bring pressure (on Devlin).”
Patrick Devlin: “A Big Sky West Coast team against a Colonial Athletic Conference East Coast Team. That’s how it had been in three straight championship games, so we knew EWU was good. Bo Levi Mitchell and (Buck Buchanan Award winner and future CFL star linebacker) J.C. Sherritt were very good. Good receivers. Taiwan Jones, who I was shortly teammates with in the NFL, was good, too, but was out with an injury.”
Nihja White (Delaware receiver ): “We thought we were going to face Villanova in a rematch, honestly. Bo Levi was a dog. Good player. We were confident, but we knew EWU had some players on offense and defense. (EWU safety and future Dallas Cowboys draft pick Matt Johnson) laid me out a couple times.”
Biden in attendance
Biden made plenty of trips to Delaware football games during the Obama Administration, so the Blue Hens were used to seeing their school’s 1965 graduate, often escorted by caravan and surrounded by Secret Service members. For EWU, it was a unique experience when he was in the stands among thousands at Pizza Hut Park.
Williams: “It’s funny. My brother had to use the bathroom during the game but the Secret Service blocked him because Biden was using the bathroom.”
Madison Hilpert (Bo Levi Mitchell’s wife and former EWU cheerleader): “He was right there on the 50-yard line. He was pretty close to everything.”
Devlin: “We had seen a lot of him already. I remember one time running to the locker room that season and passed a guy with in a Hawaiian shirt next to some big Secret Service guy, and it was Biden. Looking back now that he’s going to president, that’s pretty cool.”
Matt Johnson (twin brother Zach was also a EWU defensive starter): “I remember players in the locker room saying how the Secret Service was there. The look on (Biden’s face) face when he realized his team didn’t win was a pretty good thing.”
Kaufman: “It’s obviously more interesting now since he was elected President. A coworker and I were recently talking about how the president might actually remember a game I played in.”
Eagles start slow again
As efficient as EWU’s offense was in 2010 (it averaged 397 yards and 31 points a game), it had several slow starts and relied on a senior-laden defense to give them more opportunities. Delaware dominated EWU most of the game but led just 19-0 late in the third quarter, a game that felt more lopsided than the score.
Mitchell: “We just couldn’t put together a 10-play drive, which is what you need to do against a team like Delaware. We’d have penalties, I’d throw an interception. At one point we just said ‘Hey, we need to stop bull(expletive) and get going!’”
Devlin: “We were executing, moving the ball. (True freshman running back Andrew Pierce, who had 142 yards rushing and a touchdown) was having a great game.”
Kaufman: “It wasn’t clicking. Some things were open, but we missed them. We didn’t get too discouraged. Taiwan gave kind of a speech, wishing he was out there with us. And he was a quiet guy, and for him to speak out with emotion like that was a big deal. I wanted to make him proud.”
Johnson: “When it was 12-0 at halftime, we were still joking around in the locker room. We were still very confident and (then-head coach) Beau Baldwin gave the best halftime speech I’ve ever heard.”
Momentum shifts in EWU’s favor
EWU’s offense flipped the switch scored on a 5-play, 80-yard drive with a 23-yard touchdown connection between Mitchell and Kaufman late in the third quarter. The Eagles’ defense went into shutdown mode, setting up another touchdown pass from Kaufman to Nick Edwards to end a 14-play, 89-yard drive at the 8:16 mark of the fourth quarter.
White: “We didn’t stick to the play-calling that got us (the lead), got a little conservative and EWU made adjustments.”
Devlin: “We didn’t make many big changes, we just didn’t execute in the second half and EWU took advantage of that.”
Mitchell: “At that point in the game we thought that if our defense balled out we might have three drives left to score.”
Johnson: “We knew Delaware couldn’t beat us deep, so we made them go over the top and they didn’t even try.”
The Eagles’ defense came with another fourth-quarter stop, and proceeded to drive down the field looking to take their first lead of the game. In a fourth-and-1 situation, running back Mario Brown plunged forward to keep the drive alive, warranting a measurement and official’s video review. After multiple chain measurements, EWU was given a first down, drawing the ire of Delaware’s sideline which believed the Eagles were short.
Mitchell: “We were a little confused on our sideline. The chain moved to front of line and back of the line again. It was a mess, really. That was a huge point in the game.”
White: “We thought they were short. (Devlin) and I were right there at the measurement. The same ref that made that call saw our coach (KC Keeler) at a convention later that year and apologized for the call. At that point, why even apologize?”
Late heroics boost EWU
EWU had multiple comeback wins in 2010 that involved a Mitchell-to-Kaufman touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter, usually leaving enough time on the clock to give opposition hope of a game-winning drive of its own before the Eagles’ defense clamped down. This also happened on the grandest FCS stage when Kaufman – three plays after the white-knuckle first-down measurement – hauled in an 11-yard touchdown at the 3:25 mark to knot the game before Mike Jarrett’s game-deciding extra point gave the Eagles a 20-19 edge. Delaware, which had ample time and two timeouts, couldn’t march on EWU’s inspired defense, led by Sherritt’s 18 tackles.
Mitchell: “I get asked a lot, who is the best receiver you’ve had? As far as playmaking ability, Kaufman is the best. I could put that ball anywhere in his range and he’ll get it.”
Kaufman: “There was a look we noticed while watching film weeks before the game. The defense gave it up, and we hadn’t been in that position in the game yet. When it did, the post route was open and Bo Levi read it perfectly.”
Williams: “We knew we had to bring the pressure on that final defensive stand, and I took a lot of pride in that when I was able to get ahold of (Devlin).”
Johnson: “I remember (on Delaware’s final drive) when Sherritt said ‘This is perfect. This is exactly how we want to end this. Let’s go.’”
Devlin: “We just didn’t execute. We went from second down and manageable to third and long because I held onto the ball too long and got sacked. That put us in a bad position.”
White: “We dropped a couple passes and at the end of the day, just didn’t get it done.”
Hilpert: “On the sidelines, I don’t think any of us cheerleaders lost faith. We were superstitious, had the third-down sign up every time. We had a little to do with the win.”
EWU’s national championship has helped springboard the program into one of the most winningest at the FCS level over the last 10 years, a run that has since included five Big Sky titles, four FCS semifinal appearances, a spot in the 2018 national title game and several players to have landed on NFL rosters.
Mitchell: “That was special. There’s no guarantee I meet my wife and have our children if we don’t win the national championship. I became infatuated with her at the celebration parade in Cheney. We got married in 2015 and even named our dog Frisco, where the game was played.”
Johnson: “It didn’t hit most of us until we got on the plane and back to Cheney that we had actually won a national championship. It was a surreal feeling.”
White: “When I look back at the game, I think ‘How?’ It was disappointing. I’m in a group chat with many players from the team that feel the same.”
Devlin: “Looking back, 10 years later, I don’t think of us not getting it done in the national title game. I think of the great seasons we had and the people I got to be around.”
Kaufman: “From the new red turf that was installed, to people actually showing up to our games, it was the perfect ending to a dream ride. When we got back to Cheney from Frisco, we knew things were going to be a lot different for the program going forward.”
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