Jerry Trickie, NCAA.com
FRISCO, Texas — Ask a coach in the week leading up to a game what it will be like once his team hits the field and you might get the usual, pre-packaged answer. After the contest, it’s not quite the same. It’s typically a little more open, some might say a tad more honest.
Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler definitely fell into the honest group Friday night discussing how his team, which led 19-0 midway through the third quarter, lost its grip in the closing minutes of a thrilling championship tilt.
“To say this loss was devastating would be an understatement,” Keeler said to open his postgame news conference. “I don’t think I’ve ever been associated with a loss like this.”
The Blue Hens’ inability to stop Eastern Washington during the final 9 minutes gave the Eagles their first national title with an almost improbable 20-19 victory in front of a crowd of 13,027 at Pizza Hut Park. EWU’s Bo Levi Mitchell, the strong-armed quarterback from Katy, Texas, guided his team with near ruthless efficiency in the last period and a half before finally taking a bow in the end zone after the clock hit zero with a national championship in hand.
It wasn’t easy though as Delaware dominated early.
The Blue Hens led 12-0 at halftime after racking up 230 yards almost equally on the ground (116) and through the air (114). The defense, which came in as the top scoring defense in the country and ranked fifth in total defense, held the Eagles to just 62 yards before intermission, a season low for the first half by 23 yards. Mitchell was just 6 of 11 for 36 yards after two quarters.
“We pretty much dominated the first half but my concern was, you know, not having enough points on the board with how well we dominated,” Keeler said. “But we dominated the game and you knew that Eastern Washington was a big-play team and you just waited for them to make a couple big plays.”
He was right.
UD went up by 19 points after the teams exchanged turnovers before things started to get away from the Blue Hens. Mitchell guided EWU on an 80-yard, five-play drive, slicing up what was considered to be the best secondary in the FCS with three consecutive completions for 35, 24 and 22 yards to put Eastern Washington on the board.
“We had some opportunities to put the ballgame away and we didn’t put the ball game away; shame on us for not putting the ballgame away,” Keeler said. “They are a very good football team. It’s a tough, tough, tough way to lose, especially the way you dominated the first half the way we did.”
From there, momentum only went one way and it wasn’t the same as the first half.
“It’s just they started making some plays down field, that’s what they do and what they’re about,” Keeler said. “They got some momentum and momentum’s tough.”
Once they started rolling, the Eagles never stopped, even when its luck looked as though it might have run out. That came when Eastern Washington faced fourth-and-1 from the Delaware 23. Running back Mario Brown ended up being credited with a 1-yard run, but it wasn’t that simple.
“We stopped them,” Keeler said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it, we stopped them.”
The officials didn’t see it that way.
Following the run, the Eagles were credited with a first down. Before the next snap, the play was reviewed and the ball moved back about what appeared to be the length of the football. Keeler called timeout after the officials awarded a first down for the second time and asked for them to check the spot of the chains, which had been moved before the review started.
“The way the ball was spotted originally, that was a first down. But the chain was not on the 22. The chain was past the 22. That’s why when they said the ball is put back on the 22, we knew we stopped them,” Keeler said. “Not game over, but game close to over.”
While the spot didn’t go in Delaware’s favor, the Blue Hens still had a chance to end the game on top. The Eagles wouldn’t let that happen as a break down in pass coverage on second down followed by a perfectly placed ball from Mitchell on first-and-10 from the 11 gave EWU the win.
Even though his defense had chances after the unique fourth-down situation, the coach still had a bad feeling about it after the game.
“That’s disappointing,” Keeler said. “You know, we’re in a championship ballgame and we have a spot with 3 minutes left to go in the game that dictates who wins and loses. Usually I don’t really complain about things like that, but that really hurt. It really did.”
Need to Know
• Andrew Pierce improved his freshman rushing total by crossing the 100-yard mark for the seventh time this season. With 142 yards on the ground, he moved into second on the Blue Hens’ single-season chart as he finished with 1,615 yards. Pierce, who showed good bursts and ability to take a pounding in the middle of the line despite his 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame, also added four catches on the night for 18 yards, moving his season total to 199 receiving yards.
• Delaware came out and pounded the ball early in the game. That wasn’t surprising. But the Blue Hens potentially caught EWU off guard with who was running the ball. Quarterback Pat Devlin had just 3 rushing yards in the playoffs entering the game, but went off left tackle on the first play of the game for 8 yards. He added a 13-yard run on the opening drive and had 17 rushing yards for the game.
• Devlin gave up his third interception of the season as his pass early in the third quarter went in and out of WR Mark Schenauer’s hands. It didn’t turn out to be costly as Eastern Washington gave it right back just three plays later. They were the only turnovers of the game.
• Zack Reed made just his third catch of the playoffs and his fifth of the season with a 3-yard reception in the final two minutes of the first quarter. Reed, who had another 3-yard catch in the second half, was playing in his 53rd consecutive game, joining teammate Kevin Uhll in the UD record book. The pair now owns the Delaware marks for consecutive starts and career games played, surpassing the 52 games played by Rick Lavelle from 2000-03.
Delaware scored first Friday, the 12th time in 15 games this season it hit the scoreboard before its opponent, although this was the only time the Blue Hens did not win. … The defense put plenty of pressure on the Eastern Washington offense early, but a pair of long scoring drives — 80 and 89 yards, the longest against Delaware this season — got the Eagles back in the game in the fourth quarter. … Delaware finished the playoffs with a 41-9 scoring advantage in the third quarter. … Vice President Joe Biden, a Delaware alum and member of the Blue Hens freshman football team in 1961, was on hand for the FCS title game. … Nihja White caught the first UD pass of the game, extending his streak of games with a reception to 23.
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