The Associated Press
CHENEY, Wash. — There must have been some magic in that new red turf Eastern Washington bought. 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 before the season. They advanced to the national title game for the first time. The Big Sky Conference co-champions will play the winner of Saturday’s contest between Georgia Southern (10-4) and Delaware (11-2) on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
“It’s awesome,” said linebacker J.C. Sherritt. “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 champions, lost four fumbles, each leading to EWU scores. ”It was the turnovers that really killed us,” Villanova head coach Andy Talley said. “We obviously didn’t bring our ‘A’ game [Friday night].”
Mitchell, who transferred to Eastern this season after losing the starting job at SMU, completed 27 of 38 passes for 292 yards and was not intercepted. ”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 completed just 12 of 21 passes 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. Tyler Washburn caught it and ran 15 yards into the end zone for a 34-24 Eastern lead with 13:56 left.
Eastern’s Alante Wright fumbled a punt return, and Babbaro recovered at the Eagles’ 14. Whitney ran it in from the 2 to bring Villanova within 34-31 with 7:08 left. The Eagles burned up six minutes on their subsequent drive, which ended on fourth-and-4, when Mitchell threw a 23-yard pass to 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 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 enable Eastern to take 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 Mike Jarrett kicked a 24-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead. Villanova fumbled on its next series, the second fumble in only 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 recovered. Mitchell passed 6 yards to Edwards for a 20-7 lead with 11:14 left in the 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 left 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. The Eagles have won 10 consecutive games after early losses at Nevada and Montana State.
Villanova, of the Colonial Athletic Association, was unseeded heading into the playoffs and beat Stephen F. Austin and Appalachian State on the road to advance to the semis.
“The travel may have caught up with us a little bit,” Talley said.
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