By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It seemed like the most ominous 11 seconds of Eastern Washington's season:
Villanova had rolled into Cheney, Wash., as the defending FCS champion and off three straight impressive victories on the road. EWU All-America running back Taiwan Jones, the Big Sky Conference Co-Offensive Player of the Year, was standing on the sideline on crutches because of a broken left foot. And then 'Nova's Angelo Babbaro took the opening kickoff and raced through EWU for an almost-too-easy touchdown to open their FCS semifinal.
If you relied on the glassy-eyed looks throughout the Eastern Washington stands, you might have thought a white flag would soon be going up.
So how did the Eagles react? They marched right down their celebrated red turf on their first drive and calmly tied up the score.
They had a game plan and were going to stick with it to the end. There was no sense of panic.
EWU has played in tight games all season and certainly knows how to overcome adversity. When it came time to push the buttons, head coach Beau Baldwin and the Eagles hit only the right ones, including in their 41-31 surprise against Villanova as a shorthanded team.
Big Sky Conference coaches who know EWU so well believe that mental fortitude has played a big part in the Eagles reaching the national championship game for the first time. The No. 1-ranked Eagles will face Delaware for the FCS title on Friday, Jan. 7 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
"They played tight games all year long," Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers said. "I think our conference had more parity than it's ever had, and they seemed to be in a tight game just about every week and did the things they needed to down the stretch. I'm not sure if a team in our conference played better in a two-minute situation than they did. Not this year."
EWU, like Delaware, is 12-2. Most of the Eagles' games were close entering the fourth quarter and some came all the way down to a final play.
The Eagles relied heavily on one of the more gifted all-around players in the nation in Jones, who averaged 7.9 yards per carry and nearly 202 all-purpose yards per game. But he was injured in the quarterfinals against North Dakota State - after rushing for more than 200 yards in the first half - missed the Villanova game and is considered doubtful for the national championship game.
True freshman Mario Brown, however, stepped up his play with 104 yards on 26 carries in the win over Villanova, which eased a lot of the Eagles' concerns. The big effort went hand-in-hand with EWU's all-hands-on-deck-type of season.
"Generally, with my experience," said Montana State head coach Rob Ash, "when a big player at any position goes out, the guy who goes in comes in with a chip on his shoulder and says, 'Hey, I'm not so bad. I can play.' That guy usually plays pretty well. The other thing that happens is, if you're the quarterback or the receivers on a team that just lost their best running back, you sit there for your weeks of preparation and you say, 'We have to play better; we don't have Taiwan.' The line says, 'We have to block better because we don't have Taiwan.' So a lot of times everybody else on the team raises his level just because of the urgency of losing a big player."
Montana State was the only FCS program to beat EWU this season and did so by limiting the Eagles' play-makers. Jones suffered a hip contusion during the game and the injury disrupted the Eagles' balanced offense. The Bobcats rolled to a 30-7 victory.
Jones missed the following game at Weber State in October, but junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell responded by throwing for 337 yards and four touchdowns. Against Villanova, he again threw for four touchdowns, completing 27-of-38 passes for 292 yards.
For the season, Mitchell, a highly touted transfer from SMU who had started 19 games there, has completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 3,194 yards, 34 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He throws down the field more than Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin.
Mitchell has an All-Big Sky wide receiver in Brandon Kaufman (67 receptions, 1,094 yards, 13 touchdowns), whose 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame often dominates defensive backs. In clutch situations, Mitchell also looks for 6-3, 200-pound Nicholas Edwards (51, 540, 6). Third receiver Greg Herd also goes 6-3, 200 pounds, giving good size to the receiving corps on an otherwise average-sized Eagles team.
"I just think the quarterback does everything well," Pflugrad said. "I don't see him having a real thing you point at when you study him and say, 'Hey, he can't throw the three-step drop.' He can throw it.
"Then go play-action, he does a very nice job moving, does a nice job faking and comes out on the perimeter and can do all those things. Then he can put his foot in the ground and run. He had some really good runs against us.
"I think their receiver corps is better than it was back when we played them early in the season. Obviously, they've spread that football around during the playoffs and that's hard to do. I credit the quarterback for doing that."
Junior center Chris Powers and tackle Gabriel Jackson anchor the offensive line. Their strong play has helped the Eagles to average 32.3 points per game.
"I think they've been able to express as a team great balance," Souers said. "I don't know if I can say it any better than that. They run the ball very well and they're very capable of throwing the ball. They managed to keep defenses off-balance, and they've done it all year long. So it's really difficult to get a beat on them. I think Beau does a nice job of staying out of any sense of tendency or predictability. They utilize their personnel really well."
Defensively, EWU utilizes a 4-3 alignment. The defense, which has provided a plus-12 turnover ratio, has stepped up well in the red zone and big situations. The Eagles, though, tend to get in more shootouts than Delaware and have surrendered 25.4 points per game.
What Pflugrad likes about the defense is there is an All-Big Sky Conference catalyst in each unit: two-time Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year J.C. Sherritt at strong-side inside linebacker, fellow senior Matt Johnson at safety and junior defensive tackle Renard Williams, whose enthusiasm is even greater than his 6-2, 300-pound size.
Williams, who often draws double teams, combines with 6-3, 285-pound Tyler Jolley at defensive tackle. There's youth at the ends with freshman David Gaylord and sophomore Paul Ena.
The linebackers are fast. Sherritt has 158 tackles this season after racking up 170 as a junior in 2009. Tyler Washburn handles the middle, with Zach Johnson manning the weak-side outside linebacker spot. The twin brother of Matt Johnson disrupts offenses in many ways.
And speaking of Matt Johnson, he's had an All-America season like Sherritt. He has 96 tackles and five of the Eagles' impressive 25 interceptions. He teams with freshman Allen Brown and sophomore Jeff Minnerly, who share the free safety spot. Seniors Dante Colcote and Jesse Hoffman give the Eagles experience at cornerback.
"They run what appears on the front end to be a conservative posture, a two- deep shell. And they try to funnel the game to their linebackers," Souers said. "They check their corners for most of the game. They try to bring the four-man rush and they bring the game back to the linebackers. They have the best linebacker in the country (Sherritt) and it's very productive in the way they play the game - they tend to funnel it back to him. But they'll drop their safety down and play corners and get after you a little bit.
"They make you earn it up and down the field and they pick their battles when they're going to blitz and when their safety is going to drop down. I think the overall defense with regards to their scheme is very simple, it's what they do and they're really good at what they do."
The special teams were better when Jones was available for returns, and Darriell Beaumonte, the Big Sky's first-team selection for special teams, has been trying to get healthy as well. Kicker Mike Jarrett doesn't have great range on field goals, with a season-high of 40 yards on 10-for-19 accuracy, while Cameron Zuber is averaging 39.9 yards on punts.
Hoffman, though, is a difference-maker on kick returns with a 30.6-yard average and three touchdowns. On coverages, the Eagles had not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in more than 10 years, but have allowed one in each of their last two games.
Of course, when Villanova opened the FCS semifinal with a kickoff return for a touchdown, there was no panic from the Eagles. They've been in for the long haul since day one.