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Playoff preview: Villanova at Eastern Washington

By Andrew Gaddess, FCS Assistant

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -


Kickoff: Friday, December 17, 8 p.m. (et)

Facts & Stats: Site: Roos Field (8,600) -- Cheney, Washington. Surface: Red Sprinturf. Television: ESPN2. Announcers: Dave Neal, Jay Walker. Home Record: Villanova 4-1; Eastern Washington 7-0. Away Record: Villanova 5-3; Eastern Washington 3-2. Neutral Record: Villanova 0-0; Eastern Washington 1-0. Series Record: First meeting. Conference: Villanova - Colonial Athletic Association; Eastern Washington - Big Sky. Nicknames: Villanova Wildcats; Eastern Washington Eagles. Sports Network/ Ranking: Villanova (10); Eastern Washington (1). Head Coaches: Villanova - Andy Talley (188-106-1 at Villanova, 216-124-2 Overall); Eastern Washington - Beau Baldwin (25-11 at Eastern Washington and 35-14 Overall). All-Time Record: Villanova (571-443-41); Eastern Washington (474-391-23). Playoff Records: Villanova (10-7); Eastern Washington (7-7). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Villanova 8 (1989, 91-92, 1996-97, 2002, 08-09); Eastern Washington 7 (1985, 92, 97, 2004-05, 07, 09).

What to know: In the challenging and frigid air of Cheney, Washington, on the maddening and disorienting red turf of Roos Field, the Villanova Wildcats and the Eastern Washington Eagles will meet with a championship berth at stake.

Villanova needed a 28-21 overtime victory over Delaware in the season finale to gain consideration for an at-large bid. Since then, the Wildcats have reeled off impressive road victories over Stephen F. Austin and No. 1-seeded Appalachian State.

Typically geared to stop the run, the Wildcats adapted to Jeremy Moses and the pass-happy SFA offense, dropping eight men into coverage and intercepting the talented quarterback three times en route to a 54-24 victory.

Last week, in the quarterfinals, Villanova again proved its versatility as it held Appalachian State and dual-threat quarterback DeAndre Presley to 100 rushing yards in a 42-24 victory. James Pitts led the Wildcats with 14 tackles and Fred Maldano recorded an interception. The Wildcats currently rank No. 7 in the nation in both rushing defense (98.5 ypg) and scoring defense (17.5 ppg).

An even bigger boon to the Wildcats' playoff run, though, has been the return of Matt Szczur. After missing the majority of the season, the versatile playmaker seems to be rounding into form at just the right time. Against Appalachian State, Szczur delivered an instant classic, as he rushed for 104 yards and three touchdowns, caught five passes for 45 yards and a touchdown and went 2-for-2 through the air for 58 yards with another score. His four touchdowns scored were a single-game career high.

In Szczur's absence, the Wildcats leaned heavily upon their talented offensive line and dispersed the ball-carrying duties between Aaron Ball (59.7 ypg), quarterback Chris Whitney (44.9 ypg) and Angelo Babbaro (37.4 ypg). It can be argued that the unit grew without having its star player to rely on.

Whitney also has found success through the air, where he has thrown for 2,146 yards and 22 touchdowns. Receiver Norman White is a legitimate big play threat. He has caught 66 passes for 842 yards and 11 touchdowns this year.

Eastern Washington played its way to the quarterfinals with home wins over Southeast Missouri State and North Dakota State. Roos Field has been particularly comforting to EWU this season, as the Eagles are undefeated on their new red turf.

Last week's wild, 38-31 overtime win over North Dakota State was both elating and devastating to the Eagles. It was elating because EWU overcame five turnovers and some key mistakes by quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to capture a thrilling victory. Mitchell threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, but recovered to throw for 141 yards and three touchdowns on the day. The offensive catalyst for the Eagles, as usual, was running back Taiwan Jones, who ran for 230 yards and a touchdown in the win.

And now for the devastating part. Jones broke his left foot in the game and will not play against Villanova.

True freshman Mario Brown will take Jones' place in the starting lineup. He has rushed for 214 yards and a touchdown on 66 carries this season and has caught 11 passes for 77 yards and a score. Brown is a capable back, but does not figure to provide Jones' home run capabilities.

Still, if they Eagles are looking for encouragement, they need look no further than an October 2 regular-season matchup against Weber State. With Jones out due to injury, the Eagles scored 35 points and Brown scored his first collegiate touchdown in the win.

To be realistic, though, Weber State can't hold a candle to the Villanova defense and the loss of Jones will likely go down in the books as one of the most untimely injuries in EWU history.

Prediction: Villanova 42, Eastern Washington 21

12/16 08:06:00 ET