Tigers rally past Eagles with pair of scores in final 5:09 to claim semifinal win
The start had Sam Houston 2012 written all over it.
The middle was vintage Eastern Washington 2013.
The finish was beyond comparison last Saturday as the Towson University Tigers rallied from 10 points down in the final 5 minutes, nine seconds, scoring the winning touchdown with 17 seconds remaining to defeat Eastern 35-31 in a Football Championship Subdivision semifinal playoff game.
Backup quarterback Connor Frazier led the way in the second half for the Tigers following the injury to starter Peter Athens. The sophomore recovered from a slow start to lead his team to the FCS title game, Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas, against North Dakota State, punching the ball in himself for the deciding points at fog-shrouded Roos Field.
For a second straight year Eastern, which finished 12-3 on the season and had a 10-game winning streak snapped, fell in the semifinal round of the playoffs as last December they lost 45-42 to Sam Houston, rallying from a 35-0 halftime deficit.
Two possessions stand out as turning points. The first being quarterback Vernon Adams getting stopped at the half-yard line as time ran out in the first half as a quickly opening seam at the goal line closed just as quickly.
Then, with 1:35 remaining, Eastern leading 31-28 and having driven down to Towson's 29, an Adams pass just tipped off the fingers of wide receiver Cooper Kupp who had thoroughly beaten the Tigers' coverage.
But as Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin pointed out after the game, "It is never one play, this way or the other. It is a collective effort, and we go back and find plays where we could have done things better."
Like the Eagles' slow start where they fumbled the ball twice on their first possession, retaining it on the kickoff but losing it on the Tigers' 12 after swiftly moving the ball downfield.
Eastern trailed 21-0 on a pair of Athens touchdown passes to Emmanuel Holder and Brian Dowling, sandwiched around an acrobatic diving 1-yard score from Terrance West.
But following Dowling's diving TD catch on a fourth and three that made it 21-0, the Eagles grabbed onto a momentum swing that saw them score the next 31 straight, amping up the crowd of 6,209.
Adams marched the Eagles down field on a 7-play, 67-yard drive in 2:51 hitting Quincy Forte for eight yards to trim it to 21-7 with 7:41 left in the first half.
The Tigers responded with a drive that finished with an Athens fumble recovered by Will Katoa on the EWU 36 with 2 minutes on the clock. That began the drive that came up empty as time ran out, but the momentum carried over to the second half.
Taking the ball from their own 8 to begin the third quarter, and getting a critical fourth and two conversion on a catch and run from Ashton Clark covering 39 yards to the Towson 7, Forte's run with 11:34 left in the third closed it to 21-14.
Eastern's defense stiffened on Frazier's first time guiding his team, forcing the Tigers into their second punt. Another EWU fourth down conversion, this for five yards, kept alive the drive that ended in a Kevin Miller field goal to trim Towson's lead to 21-17 with 4:15 left in the third.
When Frazier was sacked by Ronald Baines and Anthony Larry on their own 32 it forced a second straight punt, this one being blocked by Zach Wimberly with Eastern getting the ball on the Towson 23. Two Mario Brown carries later, the last for three yards and a touchdown, pushed the Eagles into the lead, 24-21 with 1:36 to go in the third.
The swarming Eastern defense made yet another stand as the fourth quarter began, stopping Towson just before midfield and forcing another Drew Evangelista punt seven seconds into the final quarter.
The Eagles staged a 9-play, 82-yard drive keyed by Adams' 16-yard run on third-and-10 and capped things with Adams finding a diving Cory Mitchell for 13 yards and a 31-21 lead that really sent Roos a rockin.'
But then Frazier took command. Despite a huge 14-yard loss on a sack by Larry that set up a second and 24 at the Tigers' 47, Frazier carried the next three times for gains of 8, 15 and 3 yards – the final a conversion on fourth down.
West finished things with a 3-yard run that closed it to a 31-28 game with 5:09 to play, ending a nearly 30-minute scoreless streak.
"I knew that we just had to focus on the next play, focus on getting the first down," Frazier said describing the aftermath of the sack.
Eastern finished with a 580-483 edge in total offense, including a 206-19 domination in the third quarter where they outscored Towson 17-0.
Adams finished with 390 yards on 28-of-42 passing, a pair of touchdown passes and an interception on a largely futile final possession that left Eastern 73 yards away from a score with 17 seconds on the clock and no timeouts.
Clark had eight catches for 129 yards. Kupp also caught eight balls for 124 yards. Forte added 77 yards rushing.
Frazier passed for 98 yards and rushed for another 98. West, who chewed up Eastern Illinois the week before for five scores and 354 yards, was held to 115, but established a new FCS single season rushing record with 2,410 yards.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.