Duane Cross, NCAA.com
FRISCO, Texas — By the book, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen. For Eastern Washington University, it depends from which book you’re reading.
The book that says “Defense wins championships”? That book was written by the University of Delaware — the team that entered the FCS Championship Game with the fifth-ranked defense (277.8 yards per game), that was eighth in pass efficiency defense (98.6 ypg) and No. 1 in scoring defense (11.5 points per game).
Or the book that says “Local boy makes good”? That book was written by EWU junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who led Katy High School to the Class 5A state championship in 2006, signed with Southern Methodist University, spent two years under center with the Mustangs before being injured and eventually transferred to Cheney, Wash., to lead the Eagles.
For the first half of Friday night’s title game, it looked as if Delaware’s vaunted defense would live up to its billing. The Blue Hens limited Eastern Washington to only four first downs and 62 yards in the first half. Most importantly, UD held a 12-0 lead.
The second half belonged to the Eagles’ defense — and Mitchell, who engineered three second-half scoring drives en route to a come-from-behind 20-19 victory.
“When two good football teams are going at it,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said, “sometimes one team gets off to a fast start and then you know the other team is going to make a run at some point, because we’ve been on the other end of that — going up 14 0 and knowing you’re up against a good team that’s going to make a run.
“So we just wanted to stay with it [in the second half], and we made some halftime adjustments. We came out with the mindset, even though it wasn’t a two minute situation — because we really started up tempoing it in the third quarter and it wasn’t truly two minutes — we felt like we were going to play as fast we could on offense. And we felt like that was going to give us a better chance to succeed.
“We run a no huddle offense but we have a few different speeds that we can use,” Baldwin said. “And we took it to a speed to where we felt like that could give us a little bit of an edge if we could play as fast as we could in the second half. I think it really allowed for Bo and the receivers to get into a nice little rhythm by playing with that tempo.”
After going 6 of 11 for 36 yards in the first half, Mitchell finished 29 of 43 for 302 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“We came out and the team did what we had to do,” said Mitchell, who was named the game’s most outstanding player. “The O-line gave me all the time I could ask for. The second half, receivers just turned it up, did everything they’ve been doing all year — and that’s making plays. My balls weren’t perfect. They weren’t. [The receivers] made plays and did what they had to do — and we won the game because of them.”
And the Eastern Washington defense, which stymied Delaware throughout the second half. With 2011 Buck Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt throwing around his body with seemingly reckless abandon, the Eagles bent but never broke with the game on the line.
Delaware scored on its second possession of the third quarter to take a 19-0 lead. After that, the Blue Hens’ next four drives consisted of two three-and-out drives and two nine-play drives that covered 32 and 44 yards.
“This national championship has been a goal since I stepped foot on campus,” Sherritt said. “To finally get this with my team, it’s everything you dream of. The Buchanan was a great award, and it was an honor. But my eyes have been on the prize — the national championship — this whole year. So to finally get this, it’s unbelievable.”
With 8:10 remaining, Eastern Washington’s defense knew time was of the essence. Trailing 19-13, the Eagles needed a stop and to get the ball back into Mitchell’s hands. Facing third-and-5, EWU sacked Delaware QB Pat Devlin and forced a punt.
“I felt like our defense was progressively getting better into the second quarter and then definitely into the second half and I felt like offensively, if we could get into a rhythm, we could make a run,” Baldwin said.
“I just felt like we can make this a tight game and have a chance to win in the end, even though we went down 19 0.”
Mitchell & Co. took control with 6:18 to play, first-and-game-on-the-line at the EWU 37-yard line. Mitchell and Nicholas Edwards connected for 31 yards. On second-and-10, Mitchell completed a 4-yard pass to Mario Brown for 4 yards. A completion to Brandon Kaufman set up fourth-and-1. Brown bulled ahead and the officials measured — first down by the length of the football.
After a video review, a re-spot and a second review, the end result was the same: EWU first-and-still-marching at the UD 22-yard line. Two 11-yard completions — the first to Edwards, the game-winner to Kaufman — was the difference-maker.
Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler had a different perspective on the spot after the fourth-and-1 run. “We stopped them,” he said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it — we stopped them. The way the ball was spotted originally, it was a first down. But the chain was not on the 22. The chain was past the 22. That’s why as soon as they said the ball’s put back on the 22, we knew we stopped them and not game over but game close to over.”
After the referee signaled first down, the chain gang moved down the field. Then after the review, the officials brought the marker back — but not to where Keeler thought it should have been — for a second measurement.
“That’s disappointing,” Keeler said. “We’re in a championship ball game and we have a spot with three minutes left to go in the game that dictates who wins and loses. And usually I don’t really complain about things like that, but that one hurt. It really did.”
However, there was one more drive left in the Blue Hens, who took possession with 2:38 remaining at their own 30-yard line. Eight plays later, UD was faced with a fourth-and-10 inside one minute to play. Under pressure, Devlin floated a pass to Mark Schenauer, who made the grab and was tackled — after a 9-yard pickup.
The Eagles’ defense had not broken; it had, in fact, withstood its greatest test of the season and written the most memorable chapter in EWU history — the one with the happy ending: a national championship.
“To all the offensive minded people out there, including myself, that doesn’t think defense wins championships, this is the first and last time I’ll say this: It’s true,” Mitchell said. “They win championships. Without them, we wouldn’t be in this position.
“There’s been plenty of times in the playoffs and the end of the regular season that we messed up on offense, that we put our defense in the hole and they put their foot in the ground and hit that pedal and came out of it. … For it to end like this, it means everything for me and hopefully for them, because they deserve it.”
Defense wins championships. Local boy makes good. Eastern Washington’s storybook ending couldn’t have been scripted any better.
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