Note: A photo gallery from EWU's win over North Dakota State, featuring photos by Ron Swords, is available for viewing at:
Improbable win over North Dakota State gives Eastern an eighth game at the "Inferno" in a NCAA FCS Playoff game versus Villanova
Because they found a way to win yet another game on the new red Sprinturf surface at Roos Field, the reward for the Eagles is an eighth and final game this season at the Inferno.
The Eastern Washington University football team, coming off an incredibly tense 38-31 overtime triumph over North Dakota State, hosts Villanova Friday (Dec. 17) on ESPN2 in the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Playoffs. Kickoff at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., will be 5 p.m. Pacific time.
Tickets for the game will be available later today via TicketsWest.com and 1-800-325-7328. Links will also eventually be available via www.goeags.com (http://goeags.com/tickets/ewas-fbticketcentral.html).
Prices range from $10-20, and RV/tailgating passes and 2011 season tickets are also available. Current season ticket holders have until Dec. 15 to purchase their playoff tickets and retain their own seats, and after that those seats will be available for the general public to purchase.
Tickets for Eastern Washington University students are $5 each and will be available at the Athletic Ticket Office at Reese Court (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Ticket information is also available by calling 509-359-4339.
"It's awesome," Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said of playing a third-straight playoff game at home. "Anytime you play at home it's a great thing. It's great for the community, Eastern Washington, the fans and our players. We are familiar with our surroundings when we get to stay at home instead of going on the road. We'd be going on the road if we had to, and we'd jump right on it and love it.''
Baldwin is hoping the final appearance by the Eagles at the "Inferno" will attract more fans this week and add to the home-field advantage for his team. Eastern is 7-0 this season at home, including its last four games overall dating back to Nov. 13.
"We need them to come out and support us -- we love it when they are here," pleaded Baldwin. "The fans that were here against North Dakota State were awesome. I usually don't pay any attention to it, but I felt the noise when we were on defense and in the overtime. The more the merrier -- it's going to help us. When you get into this situation the home-field advantage becomes huge in the playoffs."
Because the Eagles are seeded fifth, Eastern received another home game in the semifinals against unseeded Villanova, a 42-24 winner Saturday over No. 1 seeded Appalachian State. The Eagles, ranked No.1 to end the regular season in The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, enter the game with an 11-2 record and riding a nine-game winning streak. Villanova, ranked 10th to end the regular season, is 9-4 and knocked off Montana in last year's FCS title game.
The other semifinal pits Georgia Southern (10-4) at third-seeded Delaware (11-2). The Georgia Southern Eagles ended the regular season ranked 20th and have won three-straight playoff games. The Blue Hens, who received a first-round bye, were ranked fifth to end the regular season.
"I love it," said Baldwin, who is now 9-6-1 in 16 post-season playoff games he has been a part of at the FCS, NCAA Division II and NAIA levels. "I talked to (North Dakota State) coach (Craig) Bohl before the game and he feels the same. He's been to the big level and I haven't experienced a bowl. He first was in the playoffs in 1984, and he had a couple of years where they weren't eligible. He told me he's been to bowl games and nothing compares to the feeling his guys were having right now. That was right out of his mouth. For me, it's all I've known. I've never been to the bowl level. I can't think of anything better than the playoffs. It's just a great feeling after a win. Each game is do or die.''
His team nearly died against North Dakota State, but came to life late in the game. After struggling with five turnovers in the second half during a snowstorm, the Eagles Eastern put together a 13-play, 90-yard drive to knot the game with 23 seconds to play on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Nicholas Edwards. Mitchell, who was 13-of-32 for 141 yards, two interceptions and three touchdowns in the game, had entered that drive with just 38 yards passing.
Tyler Hart gathered in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Bo Levi Mitchell on the first play of overtime, then linebacker J.C. Sherritt forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Zach Johnson to end the game with NDSU at the Eastern 1-yard line.
It was the fifth time this season the Eagles have won after trailing or with the game tied in the fourth quarter. Eastern is now 7-4 all-time in overtime after playing its first game in extra periods since 2004.
"It's been a roller coaster year like that," said Baldwin. "We've played a number of close games, but none that I would classify like that. Our guys had to step up and make plays. The weather became a factor. It was a factor for both teams. It turned into a grind for a while where neither offense was able to do a whole lot. Their offense did a better job of going downhill. We were able to find a way to throw the ball late in the game. Bo (Levi Mitchell) played some of his best ball late in the game and in overtime."
Making its eighth appearance, the Eagles are now 7-7 in the FCS Playoffs and will be making their second appearance in the in the semifinals after winning for the second time in five trips to the quarterfinals. Villanova is making its ninth appearance and has won six-straight playoff games now. The Wildcats are 10-7 overall, with a 1-1 mark in the semifinals and 3-2 record in the quarterfinals.
In 1997, Villanova lost in the quarterfinals 37-34 to eventual champion Youngstown State. The week after that, Eastern fell to YSU 25-14 in the semifinals.
A year ago, Villanova was on top of the FCS world when Matt Szczur ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns and had another 68 yards receiving in a 23-21 victory over Montana and a 14-1 finish to the season.
This season, with Szczur (pronounced "see-zer") sidelined for six games and part of a seventh with a high ankle sprain, the Wildcats were just 6-4 before ending the regular season with a 28-21 overtime victory over then top-ranked Delaware. Since then, they have out-scored two playoff opponents 96-48 in dominating No. 3-ranked Stephen F. Austin 54-24 and No. 2-ranked and top-seeded Appalachian State 42-24.
In the win over the Mountaineers, Szczur had 104 rushing yards and three touchdowns, completed 2-of-2 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, and caught five passes for 45 yards and another score. Against SFA, he had a career-high 11 catches for 128 yards and a TD, as well as nine rushes for 68 yards.
A 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior who is also an outstanding baseball player, Szczur received national plaudits for his off-the-field generosity in spring of 2010. He joined the national "Be The Match" registry as a freshman at Villanova in one of the football team's annual testing drives for potential bone marrow donors. Last spring, he donated peripheral blood cells to a young leukemia patient who only had a 1-in-80,000 chance of finding a match. He missed 10 games during the baseball season due to medication taken in advance of making his donation.
The Wildcats also feature on the of the nation's top collegiate offensive linemen at any level in Ben Ijalana (pronounced "eye-ja-lawn-a"). He was included on the voting list for this year's Walter Payton Award given to the nation's top offensive player and is projected to be the first FCS player taken in the NFL Draft. He finished 10th in the voting for the Outland Trophy given to the top lineman in the country at any level. He has started every Villanova game of his four-year career for the Wildcats and his current games started streak is now at 52 games.