By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Frisco, TX (Sports Network) - You can take Eastern Washington off its mystical red turf field, but you can't take the swarming postgame celebration out of the Eagles.
National attention has followed the Big Sky Conference program all season after it installed the new radiant artificial turf, and EWU capped a win over Montana in the field's debut with a seemingly never-ending celebration.
But Eastern Washington saved its biggest and longest celebration for after Friday night's stunning rally in the NCAA Division I Championship Game.
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell threw three touchdown passes in the final 17 minutes to lead Eastern Washington to a 20-19 victory over Delaware and the Eagles' first FCS national title before 13,027 at Pizza Hut Park.
Unabashed jubilation roared afterward with a block party that could be heard all the way back to Roos Field in Cheney. The Eagles (13-2), who ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25, stayed on that perch after setting program records for consecutive wins (11) and overall wins.
Mike Jarrett's ensuing extra point was the game-winner.
Eastern Washington's winning drive came with controversy. Trailing 19-13 with just over 3 1/2 minutes left, the Eagles needed to go for a first down on 4th- and-1 from the Delaware 23. Freshman back Mario Brown bulled his way to the 22 and the officials signaled a first down with 3:29 left.
The Delaware sideline challenged the placement of the ball, so the game was stopped for its first video replay. Officials then moved the ball back six inches and re-measured whether the Eagles had a first down. The ball just made it, but Delaware coach K.C. Keeler argued that the first-down chains which had been moved prior to the challenge were improperly placed.
"That's disappointing," Keeler said. "We're in a championship ball game and we have a spot with three minutes left to go in the game that dictates who wins and loses. And usually I don't really complain about things like that, but that one hurt. It really did."
The Eagles got one more first down on the drive before Mitchell found Kaufman behind Delaware's Kyle Hunte in the back of the Blue Hens' end zone.
"Makes a state championship for me look like nothing," said Mitchell, a native of Katy, Texas, and a former SMU starter who transferred to Eastern Washington last year. "The national championship, that is all I could ask for. I have looked forward to this my entire life, and I'm glad I'm here."
Kaufman caught a 22-yard touchdown pass with 1:48 left in the third quarter, but Eastern Washington failed on a two-point conversion, which kept Delaware's lead at 19-6. Mitchell threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Nicholas Edwards on the Eagles' next drive with 8:16 left -- capping a 14-play, 89-yard drive that was the longest against the Blue Hens this season to close within 19-13.
Delaware (12-3) blew a 19-0 lead and had its final drive halted when wide receiver Mark Schenauer caught a nine-yard pass from quarterback Pat Devlin but stumbled to the EWU 30-yard line -- one yard shy of a fourth-down conversion. Among the disappointed fans was U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a Delaware alum who sat five rows behind the Blue Hens bench.
Mitchell, who threw for 37 touchdown passes this season, had a propensity for raising his play at crucial times. He flushed away a poor first half with the second-half heroics. Overall, he completed 29-of-43 passes for 302 yards and was intercepted once.
Kaufman was the game's leading receiver with nine receptions for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who on Thursday night won the 2010 Buck Buchanan Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) as the FCS's outstanding defensive player this season, was all over the field with 18 tackles, which gave him a school-record 432 in his four-year career. Fellow outside linebacker Zach Johnson added 15 tackles, including two of the three sacks of Devlin.
"They got some momentum and, boy, momentum is tough," said Keeler, who is a candidate for the head coaching position that opened this week at the University of Connecticut.
Devlin, who had thrown for 15 touchdown passes in his previous five games, didn't throw any while completing 22-of-34 throws for 220 yards and one interception. The pick was on a tipped pass and was Devlin's first after 163 errorless attempts.
Delaware wasted the superb performance of freshman running back Andrew Pierce, who rushed for 142 yards and one touchdown on 28 carries. He scored from two yards out on the Blue Hens' opening drive, but Mike Perry's extra point was blocked with 5:14 left.
Perry kicked 21- and 33-yard field goals in the second quarter to give Delaware a 12-0 halftime lead. When the Blue Hens turned Darryl Jones' interception of Mitchell into David Hayes' one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, their 19-0 lead put Eastern Washington in a desperate spot.
Delaware had been adept at taking leads and nursing them to victories this season, but the Eagles responded in the fourth quarter in the way that has defined them this season.
Their resilience was tested over the last two games because they played without All-America tailback Taiwan Jones, who fractured his left foot against North Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
"Like coach said, right now it feels unbelievable," Sherritt said, "and to bring it back home to Washington where we've got great support, to bring it back to our students, to Eastern Washington University, it feel greats."
Sounds like another celebration could be in store. On the red turf.