Towson upsets No. 2 Eastern Illinois
Junior running back Terrance West entered a snow-filled O’Brien Field Friday night two rushing touchdowns short of the FCS single-season record and five short of the record for all-purpose touchdowns in a season.
West reached both marks en route to rushing for an FCS Playoff record 354 yards and five touchdowns against the No. 2 Eastern Illinois Panthers in Charleston, Ill. He led the way for No. 7 Towson, which emerged with a 49-39 victory and clinched a berth in the FCS semifinals.
West’s record-breaking performance overshadowed a much-anticipated matchup between he and fellow Walter Payton Award finalist quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The Towson running back out-gained Garoppolo, who entered the game with 4,729 yards and 51 touchdowns.
“It was fantastic. [West] ran like a man with a goal,” Head Coach Rob Ambrose said. “The combination of a consistent, powerful, smart offensive line and a determined running back certainly made a difference in what we could do with the ball offensively.”
However, Garoppolo and the Panthers’ fast start made a commanding Towson victory seem doubtful. The Panthers began the game with the ball and Garoppolo completed his first eight passes on a 17-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a touchdown reception by All-American wide receiver Erik Lora.
Garoppolo finished the game 38-for-50 with 321 yard, adding two passing and two rushing touchdowns.
Eastern Illinois stopped Towson on its first drive, and kept the momentum going early in the first quarter. Eastern Illinois put the away team in an early 14-0 hole after Garoppolo capped a 63-yard drive with a six-yard rushing touchdown.
“They are the No. 1 offense in the country. You weren’t going to stop that offense; you were going to slow it down,” Ambrose said. “We knew we were going to have to survive their flurry and if we did, we were going to be fine.”
The Tigers got West going in their second drive, handing it off the running back six times for 33 yards. However, he was halted on a fourth-and-two at the Panthers’ eight-yard line, giving the home team possession with a two-touchdown lead.
The Towson defense got its first stop as the second quarter began, forcing Eastern Illinois to punt. West did not waste time breaking off a 47-yard to highlight a drive that ended with his first touchdown from nine yards out.
After holding the Panthers to a turnover on downs at the Tiger 37-yard line, sophomore quarterback Connor Frazier rushed for his second touchdown of the season.
Garoppolo and Eastern Illinois remained cold, going three-and-out and punting back to the Towson offense. On the second play of the ensuing drive, West broke off a 63-yard touchdown run to give Towson its first lead at 21-14.
Ambrose said that the snow played a factor in the slow start, but his team got used to it after time.
“We don’t practice in the snow, so it took a while for us to get our footing,” Ambrose said. “The more comfortable we got with our footing, the more we got after him, and we definitely got after him.”
The Panthers were forced to punt on another drive, and the Tigers looked poised to add to their lead toward the end of the first half. However, freshman running back Darius Victor fumbled at the Panthers’ four-yard line and the home team took over.
“Football is never a game that can be played in perfection. Physical and mental mistakes are going to happen,” Ambrose said. “I’m not surprised a true freshman fumbled in a playoff game, but it’s how you respond.”
Just three plays later, Garoppolo fumbled and Towson junior defensive end Ryan Delaire recovered the ball. Towson drove deep into Eastern Illinois territory, but graduate kicker Drew Evangelista’s 26-yard field goal attempted was blocked to end the half.
The Panthers kicked off to the Tigers to begin the second half, but senior cornerback Jordan Love fumbled on the return and the Panthers took over. The Panthers orchestrated a run-only drive that covered 36 yards, ending in Garoppolo’s second rushing touchdown of the night to tie the game.
West tacked on his third touchdown of the night on the next drive. His 20-yard run and senior quarterback Peter Athens’s pass to freshman wide receiver Andre Dessenberg for 29 yards put Towson in scoring position.
Down 28-21, Eastern Illinois relied on running backs Shepard Little and Taylor Duncan on its next series. However, Garoppolo missed on a pass to wide receiver Adam Drake on third down at the Towson 12-yard line, forcing a 28-yard field goal.
West and Athens led the Tigers on a 10-play, 70-yard drive to give the away team a 35-24 lead near the end of the third quarter. West ran for 37 yards and Athens threw 29 on the drive that ended in another West touchdown run.
“The way we’ve created the offense is to be balanced and effective no matter what the circumstance,” Ambrose said. “We’re built for cold and hot, having the lead and coming from behind. We may not put up 7,000 passing yards a game, but we’re going to find a way to win football games.”
Garoppolo and his offense were efficient to begin the fourth quarter, as the quarterback went three-for-three on a drive that finished with a 39-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jeff LePak. Garoppolo passed to Lora for the two-point conversion, pushing the score to 35-32.
After the teams traded punts, the Tigers began a drive in Panther territory with just over 10 minutes remaining. West’s 37-yard run set up a three-yard touchdown from Victor to put the Tigers back up two scores with 9:53 left.
Eastern Illinois needed to answer the Towson score, but on third down, Garoppolo was sacked and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by freshman defensive lineman Syd Holt. Towson took over at the Eastern Illinois 22-yard line and West covered every yard to punch in his fifth touchdown.
Garoppolo led a 16-play, 64-yard drive to put the score at 49-39, but the home team ran out of time. West tallied a few more yards and time ticked off the clock, clinching the Tiger victory.
Towson will find out its opponent for the FCS semifinals Saturday night, as it awaits the winner of the Eastern Washington and Jacksonville State. That game will kick off at 4:05 p.m.
If Eastern Washington wins, Towson will travel there to face the Eagles on Saturday Dec. 21.
If Jacksonville State wins, the FCS semifinals will be at Johnny Unitas Stadium on the same day.