TU faces E. Illinois in FCS quarterfinals
Fresh off its first-ever Football Championship Series Playoff victory in school history, Towson will set its sights on Charleston, Ill., home of the Eastern Illinois Panthers.
The Tigers will travel to the No. 2 Panthers for an FCS Quarterfinal matchup on Friday night. The game will feature two Walter Payton Award Finalists, Towson junior running back Terrance West and Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
West leads the nation in touchdowns with 34 on the year and has rushed for 1,951 yards, good for second in the FCS. Garoppolo leads the nation with 4,729 yards through the air, adding an FCS-best 51 touchdowns as well.
Both Garoppolo and West earned First Team All-American honors, but one’s season will end Friday night.
Head Coach Rob Ambrose said Garoppolo is unlike any quarterback he has seen this year.
“What I really like about the quarterback is that an accurate quarterback is like an accurate golfer; he’s got great muscle memory and he has the ability to repeat the same physical motion over and over again,” Ambrose said. “This kid is a true talented passer. His release point is almost never the same, but he’s still on the money.”
Garoppolo leads an Eastern Illinois offense that ranks first in the FCS in yards per game, with just under 600 per contest. He has covered over 60 percent of his team’s offense, 363.8 yards per game, by himself.
Garoppolo will face off against a Tiger pass defense that stands 75th in the FCS, but has intercepted opposing quarterbacks 15 times on the season.
Towson’s pass defense is no stranger to a pass-first offense, as it faced Fordham quarterback Michael Nebrich, who ranks second in the FCS in passing, last Saturday.
Although he was able to throw for 394 yards and four touchdowns, Nebrich and his Rams lost by 20 points.
Ambrose drew similarities between the top two quarterbacks in the FCS.
“While Fordham has an up-tempo style, Eastern Illinois is clearly more up-tempo,” Ambrose said. “As good as Mike Nebrich is, this guy might be a little bit better. This guy is something special.”
The Panthers went undefeated in the Ohio Valley Conference and defeated San Diego State, a Football Bowl Subdivision team, on Aug. 31. They cruised past Tennessee State by a score of 51-10 last Saturday.
However, Garoppolo was not the only strong point for Eastern Illinois in that game. The defense held Tennessee State to just 45 rushing yards on 33 carries.
The Panthers limited Tennessee State on the ground Saturday, but they rank 44th in the FCS in rush defense overall. This could force the defense to put more focus on West than normal, something that Fordham attempted to do.
The Rams held West to 84 yards on the ground, but that allowed freshman running back Darius Victor to have a career day, rushing for 105 yards on the day.
Senior quarterback Peter Athens also threw for a career-high 301 yards and three touchdowns.
He hit wide receivers sophomore Arione Scott and freshman Andre Dessenberg for five pass combined and completed a 41-yard touchdown pass to Victor.
“I think that what you saw Saturday is a culmination of rebuilding a pass game based on the experiences they had without [Spencer Wilkins] and [Leon Kinnard],” Ambrose said. “The fact that that did happen gives the younger
guys an opportunity to get into the pass game.”
Conversely, Eastern Illinois boasts the 19th ranked rush offense, led by running back Shepard Little, who has rushed for 1,493 yards this season.
Towson will hold a send-off rally Thursday at 11:45 p.m. outside of the field house.
The Tigers will face off in the FCS Quarterfinals in Charleston, Ill. at 8 p.m. Friday night. The game will air on ESPN2.