By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CHENEY, WA. — If you went through the list of potential heroes before Saturday’s NCAA Division Football Championship semifinals, played in the snow and fog at Roos Field, Towson reserve quarterback Connor Frazier would have been far down the list.
But Frazier came off the bench in the second half, replacing an injured starter Pete Athens, to lead two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, with Frazier’s one-yard TD sneak with 17 seconds remaining lifting seventh-seeded Towson to a 35-31 victory over No. 3 Eastern Washington.
The victory vaulted the Tigers into their first national championship game appearance, where Towson will meet two-time defending titleist North Dakota State on Jan. 4 in Frisco, TX.
“We all believed we were going to come through in the end,” said Frazier, who had primarily seen action as the Tigers’ wildcat formation quarterback this season. “This is a very tight-knit group, and I think that stands for why we’re going to play in the national championship.”
With Athens (8-of-9 passing for 144 yards and two TDs) playing a near-perfect half, Towson led 21-0 with 10:32 seconds left in the second quarter.
Towson closed out drives with a nifty, one-yard, play-action scoring pass from Athens to fullback Emmanuel Holder and Terrance West’s one-yard scoring blast to sprint to a 14-0 lead in the first period.
The first drive stayed alive when West pounced on his own fumble at the EWU two after inside linebacker Ronnie Hamblin stripped him of the ball.
West broke Colgate running back Jamaal Branch’s 2003 single-season, FCS record of 2,326 yards just two carries into the game and has 2,410 yards this year after his 27-carry, 115-yard performance on Saturday. West also broke the single-season tie between him and Delaware’s Omar Cuff (40 in 2007) for FCS touchdowns with his first score of the afternoon.
Towson’s defense also got into the act on Eastern Washington’s first drive with strong safety Donnell Lewis forcing a Connor Kupp fumble that cornerback The Smith recovered at the TU 12 after a 29-yard reception.
Athens used a pinpoint, 38-yard, scoring aerial to Brian Dowling in the second quarter pushed TU ahead by three touchdowns.
The Tigers (13-2) were closing in on another score and a potential 28-7 advantage late in the first half when the senior sprained his right throwing shoulder on a first-down scramble and then dropped a snap and lost a wild scrum for the fumble.
Eastern Washington (12-3) had a chance to cut into Towson’s lead in the closing seconds of the second quarter, but Eagle sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams (28-of-42, 394 yards, two TDs) was stopped on an improvised run near the goal line as time ran out.
Those lost points would prove crucial for EWU during the game’s wild finish.
The Eagles responded from their slow start to rally for 31 consecutive points from midway in the second period through the 12-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
“We knew what we had to do,” said Adams. “We just came out and had to execute.”
Eastern Washington’s first score came on an eight-yard strike from Adams to running back Quincy Forte to make it 21-7 in the second period.
Then the Eagles stung Towson with drives of 92 and 91 yards as a seven-yard scoring dash by Forte (14 carries, 77 yards) and Kevin Miller’s 22-yard field goal cut Towson’s lead to 21-17.
When EWU’s Zach Wimberly blocked a Drew Evangelista punt at the Towson 23, it set up Mario Brown’s three-yard TD burst to give the Eagles their first lead at 24-21 with 1:36 remaining in the third stanza.
Things became even bleaker for the Tigers after Adams capped off a nine-play, 82-yard march with his brilliant, 13-yard scoring strike to a sliding Cory Mitchell with just 11:55 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 31-21 and without a point in the previous 28 minutes, Towson somehow managed to pull itself off the deck.
“We looked stuck in out shoes for awhile,” said Towson coach Rob Ambrose. “Losing the QB that has won so many game for you, playing Eastern Washington, an amazing football team. It that a monumental challenge? It probably is.”
The task was straightforward, though far from easy. The Tigers had to score twice and hold Eastern Washington on downs to keep its season alive with less than 12 minutes to play.
Towson stayed true to its offensive identity during a methodical, 15-play, 75-yard drive that consumed nearly seven precious minutes off the clock.
West and Frazier took turns, alternately pounding and darting down the field to a first down at the EWU 15. Darius Victor sliced his way for 12 yards to the three to give the Tigers a first and goal.
Three plays later, Terrance West scored his second touchdown of the day with an amazing run, reversing his field and powering over a tackler for a three-yard scoring surge that made it 31-28.
Keying that successful drive were several clutch runs from Frazier (18 carries, 98 yards). After Larry Anthony made a great read to sack Frazier on a bootleg for a devastating 14-yard loss, Frazier responded with an eight-yard scamper and a 15-yard scramble to turn a second and 24 situation into a fourth and one.
Frazier’s quarterback sneak converted the first down, foreshadowing his final run on the next drive.
Eastern Washington countered that scoring drive to the Towson 29, milking the clock to under two minutes with two yards and fourth down separating the Eagles from their second trip to the national championship game in four years.
EWU coach Beau Baldwin seemed to have the perfect call for the situation when freshman sensation Cooper Kupp got behind a Towson secondary that was held by a well-executed Adams play-action fake.
But Adams didn’t put enough air under his pass, zipping it off a wide-open Kupp’s hands to give the Tigers the ball back with 1:35 left on the clock and two time outs remaining.
“He was wide open, and I missed him,” said Adams. “I failed my team. He was wide open for the win.”
That play gave Towson the one break it needed to finally stop Eastern Washington’s high-flying attack.
“We all just said look, this is our season right here,” Towson free safety Christian Carpenter said. “It’s either we stop them or it’s going to be a long flight home. We didn’t want to go home with our heads down asking what we could’ve done on the field to help us get a ‘W.’ We didn’t want to stop playing. Our main goal was to get to Frisco, and that’s what our defense did.”
There was just enough time for Towson to pull another rabbit out of its hat.
With the offensive line providing a secure pocket, Frazier cooly completed four passes in a row, the final one a lethal, 22-yard connection with Brian Dowling to the EWU 34.
Two plays later, Frazier found Victor for an 11-yard, first-down strike at the Eagle 22.
Frazier slashed through the defense on rushes of 12 and nine yards and suddenly Eastern Washington wasn’t worried about Towson tying the game and sending it to overtime, but suddenly finding the Tigers on the doorstep of a game-winning touchdown from the one.
After Towson used a timeout, EWU committed its defense to stop West for no gain on second down with 19 seconds on the clock, forcing the Tigers to burn their final timeout.
On third down from the one, the call was for Frazier to follow the blocks of Eric Pike and Anthony Davis on the left side of the line on a quarterback sneak in a Bart Starr-style plunge into the end zone.
Evangelista’s extra point made it a four-point game and forced Eastern Washington into a desperation effort for a miracle touchdown.
Adams, who had been brilliant in leading the EWU comeback, threw into double coverage as one of his receivers ran a fly route along the Towson sideline. But instead of getting the ball to its intended target, it soared straight to Carpenter.
“I just knew to not let anybody get behind me,” Carpenter said. “I saw the ball coming in the air and as soon as I saw it, I said I was going to get it. I knew if I got it, the game would be over.”
All that was left was for Frazier to knell down once from victory formation and the ticket for the Tigers to go to Frisco was punched.
“Belief, faith, love, trust, hard work are all pretty powerful things and when you put them all together, and when you do, you can accomplish things that people told you that you couldn’t do, no matter what the adversity is,” Ambrose explained. “It’s a proud day to be a Tiger.”