CHENEY, Wash. - One of the keys to Villanova's two Football Championship Subdivison playoff wins was its plus-six edge in turnover margin. The Wildcats were on the opposite end of that statistic Friday night, and it helped bring their season to a close.
Villanova committed six turnovers - four fumbles and two interceptions - that led to 20 Eastern Washington points, and the Eagles went on to a 41-31 victory in the semifinals in front of 6,000 at Roos Field.
Top-ranked EWU (12-2) will face the winner of Saturday's Georgia Southern-Delaware game for the national championship on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas. For the defending champion Wildcats (9-5), a six-game playoff winning streak came to an end.
"Obviously, we're disappointed with the outcome of the game," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "Eastern Washington played a terrific game. I think turnovers were a major factor."
Even with a muffed punt by EWU's Alante Wright, a miscue that helped Villanova cut Eastern's lead to 34-31 with 7 minutes, 8 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Villanova was minus-4 in turnover margin.
After Wildcats quarterback Chris Whitney scored on a 2-yard run to cut the deficit to three, Eastern Washington took over at its 37 and picked up three first downs, the biggest a 5-yard pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Tyler Hart on fourth and 5 at the Wildcats' 34. Then, EWU delivered the clincher, also on fourth down, when Mitchell hit Greg Herd for a 23-yard touchdown pass with 1:04 left.
"Any time you turn the ball over [six] times . . . we were happy to be as close as we were," Whitney said. "We didn't bring our 'A' game, and you can't expect to win in the semifinals without your 'A' game."
Villanova got off to a fast start - senior Angelo Babbaro raced 86 yards untouched on the opening kickoff for a touchdown - but spent the rest of the first quarter gift-wrapping points for the Eagles. The Wildcats fumbled three times in the first 16 minutes.
After Babbaro's TD return, Eastern Washington answered with a five-play, 63-yard drive, capped by Mitchell's 31-yard touchdown pass to Nicholas Edwards.
On Villanova's first play from scrimmage, Whitney and running back Aaron Ball botched a handoff and EWU's Paul Ena recovered at the Wildcats' 36. Mike Jarrett booted a 24-yard field goal and Eastern Washington led, 10-7.
Villanova ran three plays before Ball fumbled again. Ena recovered again, and EWU settled for another Jarrett field goal and a 13-7 lead with 2:46 left in the first quarter.
Villanova's Matt Szczur, held in check for most of the half, mishandled a punt and EWU was back in business at Villanova's 43. The Eagles converted on fourth and 3 at the 36 on Darriell Beaumonte's 8-yard reception. From the 6-yard line, Mitchell's pump fake enticed cornerback Eric Loper to bite on an inside move, leaving Edwards open for a touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone.
EWU led by 20-7, with 13 of its those points coming off turnovers, and had a 9-1 edge in first downs and an 11-minute advantage in time of possession.
The Wildcats responded with a 70-yard touchdown drive, fueled by Whitney's runs and his throwing arm. Szczur scored from 1 yard out and Villanova was within 20-14. Jarrett was wide left on a 39-yard field-goal attempt in the final minute.
Szczur had 19 yards rushing, one catch for 6 yards, and one punt return for 6 yards in the first half. But he left late in the third quarter after suffering a concussion. Talley said the senior from South Jersey had trouble with his vision in one eye.
The Eagles had trouble hanging onto the ball in the third quarter. They fumbled three times in the period but managed to recover twice.
Villanova's Loper recovered the other fumble, leading to a Mark Hamilton field goal that trimmed EWU's lead to 20-17.