Red-letter day: Eastern will play for NCAA title

CHENEY - There must have been some magic in that new red turf at Eastern Washington.

Bo Levi Mitchell threw four touchdown passes as Eastern Washington beat Villanova, 41-31, on Friday night in the semifinals of the FCS football playoffs.

The Eagles (12-2) improved to 8-0 on the red artificial turf they installed prior to the season, and advanced to the national title game for the first time.

The Big Sky Conference co-champions will play the winner of today’s contest between Georgia Southern (10-4) and Delaware (11-2) on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.

“It’s awesome,” linebacker J.C. Sherritt said. “Getting a win in front of our home crowd, all those people that worked so hard to get us that turf, it’s great.”

Villanova (9-5), the defending national champion, lost four fumbles, each leading to EWU scores.

“It was the turnovers that really killed us,” Villanova coach Andy Talley said. “We obviously didn’t bring our ‘A’ game tonight.”

Mitchell, who transferred to Eastern this season after losing the starting job at SMU, passed for 292 yards on 27-for-38 accuracy with no interceptions.

“I’m looking forward to going back and playing in some warm weather,” said Mitchell, a Texas native.

Brandon Kaufman caught eight passes for 135 yards. The Eagles were without leading rusher Taiwan Jones, who gained 1,742 yards before suffering a broken foot against North Dakota State last weekend. Freshman Mario Brown ran for 104 yards.

Villanova was held to 230 yards of offense and committed six turnovers. Quarterback Chris Whitney was 12-for-21 passing for 95 yards and was intercepted twice.

Another fumble cost the Wildcats dearly when Angelo Babbaro was stripped of the ball deep in Villanova territory, and Tyler Washburn caught it and ran 15 yards into the end zone for a 34-24 Eastern lead with 13:56 remaining.

Eastern’s Alante Wright fumbled a punt return, and Babbaro recovered at the Eagles’ 14. Whitney ran it in from the 2 to cut Villanova’s deficit to 34-31 with 7:08 to play.

The Eagles burned up six minutes on their subsequent drive, which ended on a fourth-and-4 play, when Mitchell threw a 23-yard pass to Steilacoom’s Greg Herd in the end zone.

In the first half, the Wildcats had the ball for just 10 minutes.

“That killed us,” Whitley said.

Babbaro returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. But Mitchell hit Nicholas Edwards, from Tacoma’s Foss High, for a 31-yard touchdown pass on EWU’s ensuing possession to tie the game.

Villanova then fumbled the ball away three times on its next four possessions, after losing only 11 fumbles all season, to help Eastern build a 20-7 lead.

Whitney fumbled on the Wildcats’ first play from scrimmage, and Eastern’s Paul Ena recovered. The Eagles drove to the 6 before Puyallup’s Mike Jarrett kicked a 24-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.

Villanova fumbled on its next series, the second fumble in five plays from scrimmage, and Ena recovered again. Jarrett’s 31-yard field goal gave Eastern a 13-7 lead.

Matt Szczur fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and EWU’s Matt Johnson, from Tumwater, recovered. Mitchell passed 6 yards to Edwards for a 20-7 lead with 11:14 remaining in the first half.

Szczur powered over from the 1 to cut EWU’s lead to 20-14, which was the halftime score.

Villanova recovered a fumble at the EWU 33, and Mark Hamilton’s 35-yard field goal cut Eastern’s lead to 20-17 with 7:10 to play in the third quarter.

Mitchell fired a short pass to Kaufman, who outran defenders down the right sideline for a 76-yard touchdown pass and a 27-17 EWU lead.

Whitney scored from the 1 to bring the Wildcats within 27-24 at the end of the third quarter.

Eastern Washington made it to the semifinals before losing to Youngstown State in 1997.