Make no mistake: The Towson Tigers aren’t just “happy to be here.”
Moments after a 49-39 upset of second-ranked Eastern Illinois in an FCS quarterfinal football game, Towson coach Rob Ambrose said his team was “happy, but it wasn’t like we won the Super Bowl.”
“These guys have a goal in mind, a national championship, and it’s not just words,” Ambrose said Monday.
Lately, the operative words are “ball control,” something Towson did to perfection against the Panthers to advance to Saturday’s semifinal at third-ranked Eastern Washington.
Shrugging off wretched conditions that, Ambrose said, included “every kind of cold-weather precip you could think of,” the Tigers rode tailback Terrance West’s FCS playoff-record 354 rushing yards to the biggest win in school history.
Or perhaps West rode the Towson offensive line through the snowy field at Charleston, Ill.
“You can’t have one without the other,” said the 43-year-old Ambrose, a successful assistant for seven years at Connecticut before returning in 2009 to head the program at Towson, his alma mater.
After going 2-9 and 1-10, the Tigers won Colonial Athletic Association titles in 2011 and 2012, then finished second this year behind Maine. They opened the season with a landmark 35-18 victory at UConn.
Towson is 12-2 thanks partly to West, a Walter Payton Award finalist, who has 2,295 yards and 38 touchdowns, the most in FCS. A 5-foot-11, 223-pound junior from Baltimore, he averages 6.3 yards a carry and has another 215 yards receiving.
Senior quarterback Peter Athens has completed 220 of 344 passes for 17 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, and also presents a running threat. He also likes to spread the ball around; nine different players have at 100 receiving yards, but leading targets Spencer Wilkins and Leon Kinnard are out for the season with injuries.
Defensively, the Tigers excel against the run, giving up just 3.3 yards a carry and 9.9 yards per reception. Senior linebackers Telvion Clark and Monte Gaddis had 131 and 110 total tackles, respectively.
Junior defensive end Ryan Delaire has 11 1/2 sacks.
And they’re peaking. Despite giving up 511 yards to Eastern Illinois, Ambose said that “at times, we played some of the best defensive football I’ve ever seen us play.”
Towson does two things especially well on both sides of the ball: winning on third down and winning in the third quarter. The Tigers convert 50 percent (86 of 172) on third down, while giving up just 34 percent (74 of 203).
Like Eastern, Towson also dominates the third quarter, outscoring opponents 144 to 34.
Reminded that his teams are slow out of the gate, getting outscored 123-68 in the first quarter, Ambrose noted that his teams have won 12 out of 14 coin tosses this year, always electing to defer to the third quarter.
“Having it in the third quarter is a heck of a lot more important than having it in the first,” said Ambrose.