John Blanchette, NCAA.com

CHENEY, Wash. -- The biggest of J.C. Sherritt’s 400-plus career tackles? Easy. At this point, it’s any stop that allows him to make another.

Like the one he made on the final play of Eastern Washington’s overtime thriller against North Dakota State last weekend. The senior linebacker wrapped up Bison quarterback Brock Jensen short of the goal line and knocked the ball loose, allowing the Eagles to recover and salvage a 38-31 victory and a spot in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.

No. 5 seed EWU (11-2) plays host to defending FCS champion Villanova (9-4) on the red turf of Roos Field at 8:05 ET Friday on ESPN2. The winner advances to the FCS title game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas, against the survivor of the Delaware-Georgia Southern semifinal on Saturday.

It will be the Eagles’ first appearance in the semis since 1997, and was assured only when replay official Bill Fette decided there wasn’t indisputable evidence on video to overturn the fumble call -- a review that caused Sherritt considerable angst. “I’m a pessimist when it comes to things like that,” he said. “I was expecting the worst.”

The worst came later -- the news that EWU’s standout running back, Taiwan Jones, suffered a broken foot in the game to end his season. That puts even more pressure on Sherritt and his mates to contain Matt Szczur, Villanova’s Swiss Army knife of a receiver, and a Wildcats offense that has rolled up 96 points in two road playoff victories.

It’s a tough assignment, especially for a defense that ranks 93rd among 117 FCS teams. But the Eagles have made an art of the timely stop and turnover this season, and no one is more accomplished than Sherritt. “He’s one of those guys who’s played linebacker since the fifth grade,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said. “He has that ‘it’ factor. He sees screens, he’s incredibly tough to block and he finishes almost 100 percent of the time.”

Which makes it all the more mystifying that he had but one scholarship offer after leading Pullman High School to an undefeated season and the Washington 2A football championship. “I knew Washington State was a long shot because of my size,” Sherritt said. “Idaho talked to me a little but when the coaching staff changed I didn’t hear anything more. It came down to Montana State and Eastern, but then MSU took a kid out of Idaho at linebacker.”

At 5-foot-10, Sherritt was apparently easy to overlook, or pass over. “I was kind of naïve to be honest,” he confessed. “I didn’t know I was that short until I went through the process.”

But football is more than just a game of inches. Sherritt broke into Eastern’s starting lineup as a sophomore and then broke loose with a remarkable junior year, piling up a Big Sky Conference-record 170 tackles and finishing second in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award for the top defensive player in FCS.

The return of linebacker Zach Johnson, who missed the 2009 season with injury, “has made tackles a lot harder to get,” Sherritt joked, and those numbers are down, slightly. But Baldwin points out that Sherritt has worked hard to improve other facets of his game -- pass defense, in particular. And he’s the poster child for Eastern’s no-panic mien during a season in which six of their victories have come after trailing or being tied in the fourth quarter.

“A catastrophe might have happened on offense -- a turnover on our goal line -- and he still storms the field,” Baldwin said. “He’s excited for the defense at that moment. He’s inspiring even when things aren’t going good.”

Things are good now -- the Eagles are just a win away from the title game. But the absence of Jones and Villanova’s current roll make the going even tougher. “The last two weeks we’ve been so focused on the run,” Sherritt said. “You turn on the film on these guys and you’ve got Wildcat [formation], you’ve got the spread -- they’re just a well-rounded offense that if you get sucked up on the run they can beat you over the top.

“And they’re the defending national champions. The challenge doesn’t get any bigger.”