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Tigers prepare for semifinal matchup

19 December 2013 By Matt Hamilton, Associate Sports Editor No Comments

Two teams from opposite sides of the country, with two different football traditions and two completely different colored fields. However, Eastern Washington and Towson share one common goal: earning a berth in the Football Championship Subdivision National Championship game.

The Tigers will headed to Cheney, Wash. on Thursday, home of the distinct red turf and the Eastern Washington Eagles, their opponent in Saturday’s FCS semifinal.

Towson will attempt to keep its 11-game road win streak alive in its first ever FCS semifinal game. Although Towson qualified for the playoffs in 2011, Head Coach Rob Ambrose has seen a spike in the hype surrounding his team.

“Recently, I can’t go anywhere without someone saying ‘Oh my god, this is the greatest thing ever,’” Ambrose said. “It’s something we said we wanted to build and it took a lot to get here. “

For Eastern Washington (12-2), this is familiar territory, as it hosted an FCS semifinal game against Sam Houston State last year. Eastern Washington has made the FCS semifinals three out of the past four years, winning the National Championship in 2010 over Delaware.

The Eagles went undefeated in the Big Sky Conference, becoming the first school outside of Montana to win the conference title since 1997. They also took down Oregon State earlier in the season, becoming one of just a few FCS schools to defeat a ranked Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.

Darnay Tripp, Sports Director at Spokane’s KREM 2 news station and former associate sports editor at The Towerlight, described the Eagle fan base and its expectations.

“They’ve gotten to the point now that you expect them to be ranked in the top five; you expect them to compete for a Big Sky Championship. They’re on quite a roll right now,” Tripp said. “They are passionate and vocal, a little more so than Towson at this point. Although, with what Ambrose is doing, it certainly is picking up steam.”

After running past the No. 1 offense in the FCS in Eastern Illinois last Saturday, the Tigers task does not get any easier. The defense will face the No. 4 Eagle offense, which averages just over 530 yards a game.

“I feel like it’s like the pro bowl every week, because from Fordham to Eastern Illinois, to Eastern Washington, you’re playing the three best quarterbacks in the league,” Ambrose said. “The offenses are great and every week, the margin for error is smaller.”

Led by quarterback Vernon Adams, who finished second in voting for the Walter Payton Award, Eastern Washington has scored an FCS sixth-best 40.1 points per game. Adams is the second leading passer in the nation with 4,600 yards and 53 touchdowns, behind only Eastern Illinois Jimmy Garoppolo, who won the Walter Payton Award.

Adams will have the luxury of throwing to the No. 2 receiver in the FCS, Cooper Kupp, who has tallied 1,567 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year. Kupp was recently awarded the Jerry Rice Award for the nation’s top freshman.

However, Adams has thrown 14 interceptions on the year. Ball security could be crucial, as he faces the seventh-ranked defense in terms of takeaways, with 32.

Adams is a dual-threat quarterback. He has run 121 times this season for a total of 540 yards. The Towson defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks like John Robertson and Michael Birdsong considerable yards earlier in the season.

“I don’t think you ever stop [running quarterbacks], not with the offenses they run,” Ambrose said. “But you need to contain them, and keep them from hitting the home run and breaking the game themselves. If we can do that, we should be OK.”

Towson will counter with junior running back Terrance West, who finished one spot behind Adams in Walter Payton Award voting. West said that although he wanted to win the award, he is focused to something greater.

“I would have been upset if I wasn’t in the situation I’m in right now. I love the situation I’m in right now,” West said. “I have the National Championship, and I can with something with my team instead of winning something individually.”

West rushed for an FCS Playoff-record 354 yards in the snow against Eastern Illinois, adding five touchdowns to his record-tying total. In one more attempt, West outgained Garoppolo, who came into the game with over 2,500 more yards than West.

The Eagles will attempt to stop West with their 74th ranked rush defense, which has allowed opposing runners 176.1 yards per game and 24 touchdowns. Like many teams, the Eagles may attempt to add players to the line with the emphasis on West.

However, Fordham chose that strategy and were beat by senior quarterback Peter Athens, who threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in the game. Athens will face off against an Eastern Washington pass defense that ranks 117th out of 122 teams in the FCS.

With seniors Spencer Wilkins and Leon Kinnard out, Athens has found a connection with another fourth-year player: tight end James Oboh. Oboh, as well as wide receivers junior Brian Dowling and freshman Andre Dessenberg, has emerged as factors in the passing game.

“Ever since the Fordham game, [Oboh] has been stepping up big,” Athens said. “I’m very thankful that he’s been very clutch. He’s definitely done a great job so far in the playoffs.”

Both offenses have averaged over 35 points per game this postseason, so the offenses could produce impressive numbers Saturday.

Towson will battle for a berth in the National Championship Saturday. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

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