By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CHARLESTON, IL. — There will be an awards banquet somewhere in Philadelphia on Monday evening, where the 26th annual Walter Payton Award will be handed out.
That award is suppose to recognize the “best” player in the Football Championship Subdivision, though often-times in recent years voters have misfired and turned the honor into the recognition of the top passer in FCS.
After watching junior running back Terrance West of Towson gash No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois for an FCS-single-game playoff record of 354 yards and tie a school mark with five touchdowns on Friday night in a 49-39 Tiger quarterfinal victory, there is little doubt about who the top player in the subdivision really is.
Dashing through the snow at O’Brien Field, West looked like a rusher who is more prepared to challenge defenses in the NFL than the best ones that FCS has to offer.
And he did it in front of a national television audience on ESPN2 as the Tigers won their 10th consecutive road game and snapped a nine-game winning streak overall and an 11-game victory skein at O’Brien Field — the second-longest current-home-success span in FCS.
After spotting the nation’s highest scoring team 14 points in a half-a-quarter of action, seventh-seeded Towson (12-2) began to get used to EIU’s frenetic pace on offense, while West and company gouged the Panther defense apart for 472 yards on the ground and 587 yards of total offense.
West said he didn’t have any idea he had set that record, or for that matter, tied marks established by Delaware’s Omar Cuff for overall touchdowns (39 in 2007) and touchdowns rushing in a single season (38 to snap Cuff’s mark of 35).
“Records don’t mean anything,” said West, who shattered the standard of 333 rushing yards, set by Georgia Southern’s Adrian Peterson in 1999 against Massachusetts. “Our focus is on a national championship. We came into this game well-prepared and the offensive line did a great job blocking.”
Payton Award favorite Jimmy Garoppolo, the senior quarterback who had directed Eastern Illinois to 11 victories in its first 12 games, couldn’t keep up with West’s onslaught in the battle between two of the three finalists for the most recognized individual honor in what was once known as I-AA football.
Garoppolo spent much of the final three quarters running for his life on the snow-covered field, completing 38-of-50 pass attempts for 321 yards and two scores. Only Garoppolo’s evasive scrambling and quick release kept him from being sacked more than three times against a Towson defense that got more aggressive as the night wore on.
“They are very physical,” said EIU coach Dino Babers. “It comes down to making plays. It had nothing to do with conditions, weather was not the factor. It comes down to execution.”
The third finalist for the Payton Award will get to see just how good West is in person on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time when sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams and No. 3 seed Eastern Washington host Towson for the right to go to the NCAA Division I Football Championship game, which will be held Jan. 4 in Frisco, TX.
Eastern Washington advanced to the semifinals by holding off Jacksonville State 35-24 on the Tabasco-colored Field Turf at Roos Field in Cheney, WA. on Saturday.
Top-seeded and two-time defending national champion North Dakota State walloped Coastal Carolina 48-14 and New Hampshire surprised No. 4 seed Southeastern Louisiana 20-17 on Saturday to set up a semifinal between New Hampshire and North Dakota State in Fargo, N.D. on Friday night at 8 p.m. in game that will be televised by ESPN2.
If someone other than Towson will be left standing in Frisco, TX., it will only happen by finding a away to slow down the tough, 5-foot-11, 223-pound speedster wearing uniform No. 28 for the Tigers.
“Obviously, these were two very fine football teams,” said Babbers. “They have a tailback who is fantastic.”
The Baltimore, MD. product slashed, pounded and scampered around the Eastern Illinois defense with a career-high 39 carries on a night better suited for ice skating than college football.
“We practice at 5:30 a.m.,” said West. “We are used to this.”
Maybe used to the temperatures in the 20’s, but others were not so sure about the cold winds howling across the plains and the snow blowing around O’Brien Field. It also didn’t hurt that wintery weather dumped a foot of snow in the greater Baltimore area in the days leading up to Friday’s game.
“It was figuring out we weren’t actually on ice skates,” said Towson coach Rob Ambrose.
One player who seemed to have his footing all night was West.
“In this weather, you need a four-wheel drive and No. 28 is that guy,” ESPN analyst and former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Kelly Stouffer said on Friday night’s television broadcast. “(West) is the most physical finisher I’ve seen on tape this year.”
After Garappolo had thrown one TD pass of three yards to All-American receiver Erik Lora (18 catches for 129 yards) and scrambled six yards for another score to highlight the first quarter, the Panthers couldn’t score again in the first half.
And that gave West a chance to take charge.
The Tigers put together a five-play, 72-yard drive in the second period, sparked by a 47-yard West stiff-armed-induced burst on the first play of the possession that moved the ball to the EIU 25.
Facing a third and nine from the 24, backup quarterback Connor Frazier came on for a wildcat look and raced 15 yards to the nine to give Towson first and goal.
West was barely touched as he rumbled off-tackle for the final nine yards to cut the Eastern Illinois lead in half with 12:40 left in the second period.
The Tiger defense came up big on the next possession, holding Eastern Illinois on a fourth and four from the TU 37, when Garoppolo misfired on a sideline pass to running back Mark Duncan (20 carries, 100 yards rushing).
“It was mainly getting used to the snow,” said Towson defensive end Ryan Delaire, who had six tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two sacks and two quarterback hurries. “We didn’t make a lot of other adjustments.”
Delaire’s fine performance was helped by a game-high 15 tackles (11 solo stops) and one pass breakup from linebacker Telvion Clark and 14 tackles (13 of the solo variety) and one sack from Monte Gaddis.
The Tiger secondary also came up big, blanketing EIU receivers throughout the night as Towson’s defense held Eastern Illinois 10 points below its season-scoring average.
The Panthers (12-2) matched their lowest point total of the year, which had previous come in a 43-39 loss to Northern Illinois and were limited to 511 yards of total offense.
Eastern Illinois came in averaging 596 yards per game and 49 points per game, the third-highest total offense standard and fifth-best scoring average in NCAA history.
On the offensive side, West was limited to 15 yards on Towson’s next drive, but two plays involving quarterback Peter Athens (8-of-13, 115 yards passing) saved the Tigers.
Athens escaped a 20-yard sack, spinning away from defensive end Pat Wertz and firing to a diving West, who caught the ball out of bounds near the home sideline on a first-down pass and then a frustrated Wertz hit Athens after the passer had released the ball for a roughing penalty that gave Towson the key first down of the possession.
Following freshman Darius Victor’s sprint down the sideline for 22 yards to push the ball into the red zone, Frazier capped the drive by scooting to the corner of the end zone to tie the game with 6:21 left in the first half.
West’s signature play for the night and maybe the season came the next time Towson had the ball.
After pounding out 13 yards on his first carry of the drive, West turned the corner on the following play on a highlight-reel run as he used an extra burst of speed and agility to sprint down the sideline on a game-changing, 63-yard touchdown play.
That made it 21-14, Towson, and even Wertz’s block of a 26-yard Drew Evangelista field goal attempt on the final play of the first half did little to damper the Tigers enthusiasm, heading to the locker room.
The snow slowed down for much of the second half, but that fact didn’t help EIU all that much on either side of the ball.
After Towson’s Jordan Love fumbled the return of the opening kickoff of the second half, Garoppolo’s scramble for a touchdown from a yard out tied the game ever so briefly at 21 with 13:15 left in the third period.
But the Panthers showed they had found no answers for West during the intermission.
West pounded the EIU defense for 41 of 75 yards, including a six-yard blast through the line almost untouched to lift the Tigers back on top permanently at 28-21 with just under 10 minutes remaining in the third stanza.
Eastern Illinois got as close as 28-24 when Cameron Berra drilled a 28-yard field goal, but that was answered by West’s fourth score of the night as this physically daunting back crashed in from the five to cap a 10-play, 70-yard march to make it 35-24 with 1:13 showing on the third-period clock.
Garoppolo lifted EIU hopes briefly again in the first 30 seconds of the fourth quarter, when he fired a 39-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Jeff LePak and then followed it with a low, laser-like two-point pass that Lora somehow managed to catch before it hit the frozen turf.
The Panthers trailed only 35-32 and its cold and frustrated crowd of 3,850 fans momentarily showed some life.
But the Towson running game again tore apart the EIU defense, with Victor (11 carries for 80 yards) and West scoring on runs of three yards each to push the Tiger advantage to 49-32 midway through the fourth period.
West’s final TD was set up by Delaire’s blindside, fumble-inducing hit on Garoppolo for a sack that was recovered by Syd Holt at the EIU 22.
Eastern Illinois made it 49-39 on a time-consuming, 16-play, 64-yard, fourth-quarter drive as reserve running back Ryan Meyer found the end zone on a fourth and goal burst from the 10 with 3:08 remaining.
Any hopes the Panthers had for a miracle finish similar to the one Delaware pulled off against Towson in the middle of the season (scoring 22 points in the last 11 1/2 minutes, including two TDs in the final 48 seconds) were dashed when the Tigers recovered the ensuing onside kick from Berra.
Four more carries by West secured a couple of more first downs and two plays from victory formation secured Towson’s place in the FCS semifinals.
“It’s a 60 minute game,” said Ambrose. “We knew they were going to score points. We also knew we would find a way to win.”