In the FCS Huddle: FCS Championship Game
The Sports Network
By Andrew Gaddess, FCS Assistant
Matchup: (5) Delaware (12-2) at (1) Eastern Washington (12-2)
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 7, 7:05 p.m. ET
Facts & stats: Site: Pizza Hut Park (23,500) -- Frisco, Texas. Surface: Grass. Television: ESPN2. Announcers: Dave Neal, Andre Ware, Jon Berger. Home Record: Delaware 9-1; Eastern Washington 8-0. Away Record: Delaware 3-1; Eastern Washington 3-2. Neutral Record: Delaware 0-0; Eastern Washington 1-0. Series Record: First meeting. Conference: Delaware - Colonial Athletic Association; Eastern Washington - Big Sky. Nicknames: Delaware Blue Hens; Eastern Washington Eagles. The Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Delaware (5); Eastern Washington (1). Head Coaches: Delaware - K.C. Keeler (74-41 at Delaware, 162-62-1 Overall); Eastern Washington - Beau Baldwin (26-11 at Eastern Washington and 36-14 Overall). All-Time Record: Delaware (651-414-44); Eastern Washington (475-391-23). Playoff Records: Delaware (22-13); Eastern Washington (8-7). FCS Playoff Appearances: Delaware 15 (1981-82, 86, 88, 91-93, 95-97, 2000, 03-04, 07, 10); Eastern Washington 8 (1985, 92, 97, 2004-05, 07, 09-10).
What to know: The Football Championship Subdivision will crown its top team when the Delaware Blue Hens and the Eastern Washington Eagles meet in Pizza Hut Park.
The Blue Hens compiled a 9-2 regular-season record and held the No. 1 ranking in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 before a 28-21 overtime loss to Villanova in the season finale knocked them from the top spot. They won seven consecutive games to begin the season, and their only other loss came against then-No. 4 William & Mary, 17-16 on Oct. 23.
For its exploits, Delaware was crowned Colonial Athletic Association co- champion and received a first-round playoff bye. The Blue Hens dispatched Lehigh, 42-20, in the second round, then rode their vaunted defense to a 16-3 quarterfinal victory over CAA foe New Hampshire. Most recently, UD took advantage of four turnovers to down a dangerous Georgia Southern squad, 27-10, in the semifinals to earn a berth in the national championship game.
Friday's game will mark the Blue Hens' fourth appearance in the title game. They are 1-2 all-time is such games, winning a national championship in 2003. UD is competing in the FCS playoffs for a 15th time and has compiled a 22-13 record thus far.
When Delaware fell in its season finale to Villanova, Eastern Washington, on the strength of a 9-2 finish and a co-Big Sky championship, was right there to claim the No. 1 national ranking. The Eagles' only two loses this season came to FBS member Nevada and to the then-No. 17 Montana State Bobcats. EWU also posted a perfect 5-0 regular season record on the highly publicized red turf of Roos Field, dubbed the "Inferno".
The Eagles received a first-round bye and continued their scorching play at the "Inferno" by defeating Southeast Missouri State, North Dakota State (in overtime) and Villanova in succession to advance to the national championship game.
EWU is making its first appearance in the title game and is 8-7 all-time in the FCS playoffs.
The showdown in Pizza Hut Park will mark the first-ever meeting between Delaware and Eastern Washington on the gridiron.
The Eagles have won 10 consecutive games, which ties them with Jacksonville and Dayton of the Pioneer Football Conference for the longest active win streak in the FCS. They are 12-0 this year when ahead (8-0) or tied (4-0) when entering the fourth quarter.
A significant factor in EWU's success this season had been standout running back Taiwan Jones. Largely considered one of the most dangerous threats in the country, Jones ran for 1,742 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns before breaking a bone in his left foot during the Eagles' 38-31 overtime victory over North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. He ran for 230 yards and a touchdown in the win. He is listed as doubtful for the Delaware game.
While he doesn't possess the big play threat of a Jones, freshman backup Mario Brown performed admirably against Villanova in the semifinals. Brown carried the ball 26 times for 104 yards in the 41-31 win.
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell also stepped up in Jones' absence, as he completed 27-of-38 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns against zero interceptions. On the year, the SMU transfer has thrown for 3,194 yards and 34 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. He relies on the duo of Brandon Kaufman and Nicholas Edwards, who have compiled 1,094 and 540 receiving yards, respectively, while combining for 19 touchdown receptions. Led by this core, the Eagles average an impressive 32.3 points per game.
While the offense is the stronger of the team's two units, the defense, led by Buck Buchanan Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) finalist J.C. Sherritt, has answered the call in the playoffs.
Sherritt is a true ballhawk and is the emotional leader of the Eagles' defense. He leads the team and ranks No. 10 in the country in tackles per game (11.3) and also paces EWU in tackles for loss (13.5). The senior's downhill style sets the tone for a unit whose strength lies in stopping the run. The Eagles rank No. 41 in the country against the run (135.5 ypg), as opposed to No. 105 against the pass (240.64).
The Eagles have been wildly opportunistic, however, as they lead the FCS with 46 forced turnovers and 25 interceptions. Against Villanova, EWU forced an incredible six turnovers, with four fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
On the year, the team allows 25.4 ppg.
It will be interesting to see if Eastern Washington can force the Delaware offense into mistakes. Generally, the Blue Hens do not cough the ball up, as they rank No. 3 in the nation in turnover margin (plus-1.21). They have lost just 11 fumbles and are tied for the FCS lead with just three interceptions thrown.
Wildly efficient at the quarterback position, Pat Devlin is considered one of the best in the country. He ranks No. 3 in the FCS in quarterback efficiency (155.3 rating) and has thrown for 2,812 yards and 22 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also likes to spread the ball around, as four Blue Hens have racked up over 400 yards receiving on the year (with a fifth just nine yards shy of 400). UD throws for 217.2 ypg.
In truth, Devlin's talents have likely been underutilized due to the emergence of freshman running back Andrew Pierce. Head coach K.C. Keeler wouldn't have it any other way, as he unleashes Pierce behind a powerful offensive line to play keep away from opponents and provide rest for his stellar defense. Pierce has burst onto the scene this season with 1,513 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns and is averaging 108.1 rushing ypg. In UD's quarterfinal victory over Georgia Southern, Pierce rushed for 186 yards at a 7.2 yards-per-carry clip. The Blue Hens rush for 183.5 ypg (No. 29 FCS), and score 28.5 ppg.
While the offense is no slouch, the Delaware defense truly guides this team. The Blue Hens boast the No. 1 scoring defense in the FCS, allowing a minuscule 11.5 ppg. They also are allowing just over 15 first downs per game (No. 5 FCS) and are incredibly suffocating in the red zone, allowing opponents to score from inside the 20-yard line only 62 percent of the time (No. 3 FCS).
A bevy of talented and experienced players guide this unit. Anthony Walters has proven to be one of the best defensive backs in the nation. He has recorded seven interceptions, seven pass break-ups, one fumble recovery and 67 tackles on the year.
Paul Worrilow, a sophomore linebacker, leads UD with 104 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, while Matt Marcorelle, a sixth-year senior, provides countless leadership and inspiration, while also producing on the field, racking up a team-high 10 tackles for loss.
The Blue Hens forced four turnovers in the win over Georgia Southern. They hold teams to 111 rushing ypg and 166.4 passing ypg.
So, who wins in this matchup of the high-flying Eagles of Eastern Washington and the hardened, bruising Delaware Blue Hens?
It is tough to say. Many experts laud CAA Football as the best the FCS has to offer, immediately granting favor to a team which comes from it. But if the CAA is No. 1 in the FCS pecking order, then the Big Sky is not far behind. Add in the fact that the Eagles just defeated CAA power and defending FCS champion Villanova and this one could go either way.
Still, the overall cohesiveness of this Blue Hens team is hard to pick against. The Blue Hens possess a next-level quarterback, a sound rushing game and the best defense in the nation.
Also, it will be interesting to see how EWU plays away from the incredibly friendly confines of the "Inferno" and its red SprinTurf. The Eagles have played all but two games on synthetic turf this season, which clearly plays to their speed and wide open style. The championship game, however, will take place on grass. Clearly, the more traditional playing surface favors the equally traditional Blue Hens' attack.
Prediction: Delaware 38, Eastern Washington 23
01/03 13:52:39 ET