Back-up QB puts up latest roadblock to Frisco for Eagles
If there was any upside to Eastern Washington University's football team's latest trip through the emotional wringer they took themselves and their fans on in last Saturday's 35-31 loss to Towson in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals, there's more money for last minute Christmas gifts.
After Connor Frazier broke out of his early funk – and a persisting Roos Field fog – to rally his Tiger teammates from Baltimore past the Eagles by scoring the go-ahead points with 17 seconds to play, there was no scramble booking flights to Frisco.
There was for some the need to dose up on their favorite over-the-bar painkiller.
For the second year in a row the real fog was the stunning disbelief most of the 6,209 fans tried to wipe from their eyes.
Players coped as they could by either hugging their Eagle brothers, or, like linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, slumped alone on the bench, face buried in his hands.
First it was watching another furious rally, not unlike about this same time and place last December when Eastern climbed out of a 35-0 halftime deficit only to lose 45-42 to Sam Houston State with a trip to the FCS Texas title game on the line.
This time the hole Towson put the Eagles in was not near as deep as 2012's. The Eagles first rallied from a 21-0 second quarter deficit to score 31 straight points and lead 31-21 with just under 12 minutes to play.
But the Tigers – behind the sophomore Frazier, a backup quarterback, pressed into action when senior Peter Athens went down with a shoulder injury – scored twice in the final 5 minutes, 9 seconds and earned the right to try to keep North Dakota State from an FCS three-peat.
The atmosphere of the postgame press conference in the basement of Reese Court was not unlike that outside. Sweaty, wet and on the verge of tears, be they the ones of joy or agony.
"I'm numb, it's a little surreal. I'm wet from the Gatorade," Tigers' head coach Rob Ambrose said describing the effects of the bath he took as time wound down.
"Losing the quarterback who has won as many games as he has and who was playing as well as he was playing was probably a little bit of a shock to everybody," Ambrose, a former Tigers wide receiver and the 2011 Eddie Robinson Award winner said.
But unlike Jacksonville State the week before, who lost their starting QB, Eli Jenkins, and withered in the second half of a 35-24 Eastern win, Frazier got better with time.
After his first two series in the third quarter netted just 30 yards, and what appeared to be a game-changing sack by the Eagles' Anthony Larry for a loss of 14 yards on Towson's third possession, an angry Frazier took command.
"First I was just really upset at myself for not throwing the ball away, I thought I could out-run the guy," Frazier explained. "But I knew that we just had to focus on the next play, focus on getting the first down."
Calling his own number three straight times, Frazier quickly erased a seemingly insurmountable second and 24 situation, and more importantly some additional Eastern defensive swagger.
Tailback Terrence West, largely bottled up after a 354-yard, five touchdown outing in Towson's 49-39 upset of Eastern Illinois a week prior, and limited to 115 yards Saturday, scored his second touchdown with 5:09 to go, trimming Eastern's edge to 31-28.
A different dampness was evident with the super-subdued Eastern contingent of head coach Beau Baldwin, quarterback Vernon Adams and linebacker Cody McCarthy.
McCarthy, a junior linebacker, seen earlier on the sidelines in the heat of the battle encouraging his teammates as they clung to a 31-28 lead, never lost that fire.
"I would go to war with these two men any day of the week – any day," he said of his coach and Adams, the sophomore quarterback who has done things in his first two years some seniors never do.
The record-setting young leader of this team that had done things no other at Eastern had accomplished, did what those in charge do – taking full responsibility even if it might not be their duty.
On the fourth-and-two play at the Towson 29 with 1:40 to go, he scrambled out of pressure, spied the wide open and sure handed Cooper Kupp wide open over the middle – and who had beaten his coverage – for what would have been the clinching score.
The pass glanced off a diving Kupp's finger tips. "He was wide open, and I missed him. I failed my team. He was wide open for the win."
"Vernon did not let this team down," McCarthy, shaking his head, shot back.
"This man is a hell of a football player. The things he is able to do in incredible situations where most people can't – he makes plays. He did not fail this team."
His coach, too, came to Adams' defense. "There is no one play; there is never one play in a game ever," Baldwin said.
"We will be back at it again," Baldwin said.
With that assurance, and many players returning next season, one might want to think about penciling in Jan. 3, 2015 on the calendar just in case.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.