Battle of the birds for FCS title
Eagles and Blue Hens contend for championship
Duane Cross, NCAA.com
FRISCO, Texas -- Two-a-days, the season-opening kickoff, 60 minutes of head knocking and even overtime -- it all comes to a head at 7 p.m. ET Friday when Eastern Washington and Delaware tee up for the 2011 FCS Championship Game (ESPN2/espn3.com).
This is the first title game to be played at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, as well as the first that didn’t come the weekend after the semifinals, which were played Dec. 17-18. There has been more of a “bowl” game feel to the week’s events, but both teams are adamant that the national championship game is the focus.
“As I told them on the practice field, the hay's in the barn,” UD head coach K.C. Keeler said. “There's a little bit of an unknown because it's almost like a first game all over again because you've had three weeks off. But again, looking back at it and just talking to the fellas, we're all happy about how we prepared. We're anxious to play a very good football team [Friday] night.”
Delaware, the No. 3 seed, reached the championship game by defeating Lehigh, New Hampshire and Georgia Southern in the playoffs. The Blue Hens (12-2) are averaging 28.3 points scored and 11.0 points allowed in the postseason.
Fifth-seeded Eastern Washington (12-2) has been even more potent offensively, averaging 38.6 points in the playoffs. Defensively, the Eagles have allowed 79 points (26.3 per game) in victories against Southeast Missouri State, North Dakota State and defending champion Villanova.
“I just think one of the best things about this ball club, and just the guys and the feeling, is that with each win they're excited, but they're excited then to then prepare for the next one,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said. “So I think just the whole magnitude of this game, I think, will have a bigger effect down the road in terms of looking back on it.”
On paper, the game looks to hinge on how EWU’s offense fares against Delaware’s defense. The Blue Hens limited their first nine opponents to 17 or fewer points, the program’s longest stretch of holding teams to 17 or fewer points since 1972, and conversely the UD offense has held serve, having led or been tied for 728 of 840 minutes this season.
Also, the Blue Hens ranks fifth nationally in total defense (277.8 yards per game), eighth in pass efficiency defense (98.6 ypg) and No. 1 in scoring defense (11.5 points per game).
“I don't want to sugar coat it at all but they are a great defense,” said EWU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a native of Katy, Texas, who returns to his home state for the championship game. “But in the same turn, we're a great offense. We're going to go out and play the game like we always have.
“We're not going to look at them like they're from the movie ‘300.’ We'll look at them like they're another opponent playing football like we are. We're going to go out and execute offense the way we're supposed to and play a football game,” said Mitchell, who transferred to EWU this season after two years at Southern Methodist.
For its part, the Eastern Washington offense ranks 19th in total offense (402 ypg) and 12th in scoring (32.2). During their current 10-game winning streak, the longest in FCS competition, the Eagles are defeating opponents by an average of 14 points.
“Just looking at the numbers, their conference [Big Sky] is more of an offensive conference [Colonial Athletic Association],” Keeler said. “Their numbers are higher offensively than our numbers are in our conference. At the same time, our conference is more of a defensive conference. If you look at the numbers just conference wide, in our conference it changes all the time.
“They have outstanding players like we do. A lot of the same schemes. It's a little bit like watching ourselves because they don't get real fancy, neither do we. I think they are who they are and we are who we are.”
Delaware’s offense, led by Penn State transfer Pat Devlin at quarterback and freshman running back Andrew Pierce, ranks 20th nationally with 400.7 ypg and 36th in scoring (28.5).
Defensively, Eastern Washington is 86th in total defense (376.1 ypg) and 64th in scoring defense (25.3).
“I think that's the No. 1 asset, as a team, is how balanced they are offensively,” said EWU linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who was honored Thursday with the Buck Buchanan Award as the FCS’ top defensive player. “You look at those all 11 spots, they don't have a weak link. And that's something that I think you gotta expect when you get to this game.
“With Devlin, some of the best decision making I've seen in my career by a quarterback. And to be successful against them, we're not going to be able to just sit there in the same defense and play them. [We] have to try to mix it up a little bit.”