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Johnson Brothers Leading Eastern Into Title Game
The similarities between Eastern Washington University football stars Matt and Zach Johnson extend well beyond the fact that the juniors are identical twins.
“If I’m not in the room, Matt will tell our roommates something and I’ll come in and say the exact same thing,” Zach said.
“And,” Matt added, “sometimes we’ll just randomly say the exact same thing at the same time.”
The Johnsons also have a knack for playing excellent football at the same time. The former Tumwater High School standouts have been instrumental in leading the top-ranked Eagles into the Football Championship Subdivision national title game Friday against fifth-ranked Delaware.
Matt, a third-team All-American and first-team All-Big Sky Conference safety, leads the 12-2 Eagles with five interceptions and ranks third with 96 tackles.
Zach, a second-team All-Big Sky linebacker, ranks second on the Eagles with 119 tackles and 12 1-2 tackles for loss.
“His athletic ability — I think he has the best vertical (jump) on our team,” Zach said.
“He’s got good instincts at safety. That’s what you need to be a good safety. A lot of times, he’ll know what’s coming.”
Matt is slightly taller and faster than his slightly heavier brother, but Zach runs quite well — particularly for a 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker coming off three arthroscopic knee operations in one year.
“He’s more like a safety playing linebacker, except with the strength of a linebacker,” Matt said. “He’s probably the second-strongest guy at the bench press on the team.
“He’s just a good athlete, but I think the best thing about him is his leadership. I know he leads me a lot.”
The Johnsons, star baseball outfielders at Tumwater (“If Eastern had baseball, we’d play both sports,” Matt said), also played basketball in high school. Not all that well, if you listen to Zach.
“We were football players playing basketball,” he said with a laugh.
Whatever the sport, the Johnsons had played on the same teams all their lives until Zach was forced to sit out last season when a blood clot developed in his left leg after surgery. Blood thinners quickly eased major concerns about his health, but Matt said it was very difficult playing without his brother.
“It was really weird,” Matt said.
Zach and Matt made honorable mention All-Big Sky as redshirt freshmen in 2008, when they ranked 1-2 on the Eagles in tackles. Last year, Matt led the Big Sky with six interceptions and again made honorable mention.
“Off the field, they’re both very humble, very quiet guys,” said Renard Williams, Eastern’s standout defensive tackle out of South Kitsap. “But when you put those helmets on ’em, they’re out there knockin’ heads.”
Delaware (12-2) and combines a balanced offense with a solid defense. Williams, a 6-2, 300-pound junior, plans to add to his team-leading six quarterback sacks when he faces the Blue Hens.
“They’ve got a decent offensive line. Nothing like Villanova, in my opinion,” Williams said.
“I don’t think they’re as big or physical like Villanova was. Delaware, they’re more athletic on the offensive line. Their guys can move a lot better.
“They’ve got a great running back. He’s a freshman. He runs hard. He loves to ‘run downhill.’ They’ve got a quarterback who’s pretty good. He’s more of a pocket passer. He’s not really going to try to beat you with his legs.”
The Eagles have tied a school record with 12 wins, but Williams said that’s not enough.
“We can’t look at that any more,” he said. “We have to focus on this game and get one last victory.”
Both starting quarterbacks began their college careers at Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Delaware’s Pat Devlin was a backup at Penn State, and Eastern’s Bo Levi Mitchell was a starter for 1 1/2 seasons at Southern Methodist in Dallas. Friday’s game will be played in the Dallas suburb of Frisco at Pizza Hut Park (capacity 23,500), home of Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas. Eastern, riding a 10-game winning streak, has not played on the road since Oct. 30. The Eagles have been playing it coy, but All-American running back Taiwan Jones is expected to miss a second straight game with a foot fracture. The Blue Hens lead the FCS with 11.5 points allowed per game. Eastern ranks 12th in scoring at 32.3. Delaware freshman Andrew Pierce, one of several Blue Hens who have received All-American honors of some sort, ranks 15th with 108.1 rushing yards per game. Delaware was ranked No. 1 before finishing the regular season with a 31-28 overtime loss to Villanova. Eastern beat Villanova (the only common opponent for the Eagles and Blue Hens) 41-31 on Dec. 17.
Eagles at a Glance
Eastern (12-2) vs. Delaware (12-2)
Time: 4 p.m. TV: ESPN2
By Howie Stalwick, Kitsap Sun