CHENEY, Wash. - The defense rests.
The defending Football Championship Series champion Villanova Wildcats are headed home following a 41-31 loss to Eastern Washington in a semifinal playoff game last night.
Eastern Washington will play the winner of today's Georgia Southern-Delaware game in the title game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
Villanova star Matt Szczur left in the second half with concussion symptoms and did not return.
Through its first two playoff games, Villanova prospered in the takeaway/giveaway department. Heading west for the semifinal, the team was plus-6 in the postseason.
But on the red turf of Roos Field, the Wildcats' downfall was the fumble. They coughed up the football three times in the first half and trailed, 20-14, at intermission. A third-quarter fumble was returned 15 yards for an Eastern Washington touchdown after Villanova cut the lead to 27-24.
In all, the Wildcats turned the ball over six times.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed in the turnovers," coach Andy Talley said. "I think maybe the travel caught up to us a little bit. We'd already been to Texas and we've been all over. It's finals week for us, and our kids were taking finals [Thursday]. That's not an excuse, but it has been a rough road for us."
Four lost fumbles and an interception at the EWU 2 put the Wildcats at minus-4 in turnovers in the semifinal game alone.
Angelo Babbaro got the game off to a fast start for Villanova, returning the game's opening kick 86 yards for a touchdown while a good portion of the 6,600 in attendance were still headed to their seats.
But from there, the Wildcats put themselves in a hole.
Eastern scored on its first drive, marching 63 yards in only five plays to knot the score, 7-7.
On Villanova's first play from scrimmage, senior quarterback Chris Whitney fumbled the snap out of shotgun formation and the Eagles recovered at the Villanova 39. The Wildcats' defense stopped the nine-play drive at the 7 and Eastern converted on a 24-yard field goal to take a lead it never surrendered.
A fumble on the second Villanova possession gave the Eagles the ball back on 'Nova's 46 and, again, Eastern turned it into a field goal, this one from 31 yards out to make it 13-7.
The teams traded defensive stops, Szczur fumbled the Eastern punt and the No. 1-ranked Eagles converted the turnover into an eight-play drive, with quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell connecting with Nicholas Edwards on a 6-yard pass for the touchdown, taking a 20-7 lead with 11:14 left in the second quarter.
Whitney engineered a 70-yard, 11-play drive to make it 20-14 when Szczur scored from a yard out with 5:12 left.
Villanova cut its deficit to 20-17 on a Mark Hamilton 35-yard field goal with 7:10 left in the third quarter, but Eastern came right back with a 76-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Brandon Kaufman with 2:15 left in the quarter.
Once more, the Wildcats cut the Eastern lead to just a field goal. Whitney marched the team 50 yards on six plays just before the end of the third quarter, punching over from the 1 on a keeper that made it 27-24.
But a fourth fumble proved too much for the team to overcome.
This time, running back Babbaro was stopped and stripped at the Villanova 15. Tyler Washburn, Eastern's middle linebacker, took the ball out of the air and rumbled in for the touchdown with just under 14 minutes left to play.
Defensive back Jeff Minnerly picked off a Whitney pass at the Eastern 2 to thwart a Wildcats scoring threat, but the Eagles fumbled on their 14 to allow the Wildcats a second life on the drive, and Whitney punched it in again, this time from the 2, to cut the lead once again.
But on their homefield, the Eagles put the game away, running most of the final 7 minutes off the clock, capping the drive with a gutsy, fourth-down touchdown pass by Mitchell to Greg Herd in the end zone that covered 23 yards.
True freshman running back Mario Brown, filling in for injured All-America Taiwan Jones, rushed for 104 yards on 26 carries to lead the Eastern Washington offense. Mitchell completed 27 of 38 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns.
"I think coach put it best, we didn't bring our 'A' game," Whitney said. "You can't give the ball up [six] times and expect to win a football game."