Eastern, meet West.
Three days ago, Towson coach Rob Ambrose was asked why Tigers running back Terrance West should win the Walter Payton Award, the top individual honor in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Ambrose paused, then pounced.
“You mean this is an actual question, that there’s somebody out there who doesn’t think he should win?” Ambrose shot back Monday morning during the Colonial Athletic Association’s weekly media teleconference.
“If he doesn’t win, there is something wrong with how we tabulate the ballots,” said Ambrose, whose Tigers face Eastern Washington in a semifinal FCS playoff game Saturday at Roos Field.
Seconds later, a CAA representative informed Ambrose that the ballots had been counted three weeks prior, long before West ran for an FCS-record 354 yards in a quarterfinal win last Friday at Eastern Illinois.
Ambrose gave a disdainful laugh and a parting shot.
“Then those people are going to look pretty funny,” he said.
Sure enough, West finished third behind Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams.
They probably don’t look as funny as the defenders West has left in his wake en route to an FCS-best 2,295 yards and 38 touchdowns this season. A versatile 5-foot-11, 223-pound junior from Baltimore, he also averages 6.3 yards per carry and has 215 receiving yards.
“After watching him, he’s as good as any running back I’ve ever seen in my career here at Eastern,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said.
West and Towson made history in 2011, running for 1,294 yards to earn the inaugural Jerry Rice Award given to the top freshman in FCS. That also marked the Tigers’ first FCS playoff game, a 40-38 loss to Lehigh that only whetted the program’s appetite for more.
West ran for 1,046 yards last year, then burst onto the national scene in this year’s opening game, a 33-18 win at FBS school Connecticut.
“From the beginning of the game I saw we could handle them,” said West, who rushed for 156 yards and two scores against the Huskies.
The ability of West and the savvy of senior quarterback Peter Athens have been a key in this, the best season in Towson history. The fifth-ranked Tigers are 13-2 after winning the first two playoff games in school history, including a 49-39 win in the snow and sleet at high-scoring Eastern Illinois.
“Dang, he’s good,” Eastern linebacker Albert Havili said of West. “He hits holes, runs hard, and he’s going to be physical.”
Ambrose values his possession offense as a tool to keep prolific opposing offenses off the field.
“Attempting to shorten the game with a run is an intelligent move,” Ambrose said as he prepared for Eastern Washington.
While Eastern is appearing in its third FCS semifinal in four years, it’s a first for Towson – at any level.
The Tigers played in the 1976 Division III semifinals, beating St. Lawrence 38-36. Towson made three Division II playoff appearances – in 1983, 1984, and 1986 – but did not advance to the semis.
Eastern is 1-2 in semifinal games. In 1997, the Eagles lost to Youngstown State 25-14 in Spokane; in 2010, they beat Villanova 41-31 at Roos Field, and last year fell to Sam Houston State, 45-42.
Not that it matters, said Ambrose, who said his players won’t be shy on the big stage.
“That’s a question for guys with pens and computers,” Ambrose said, noting that his Tigers went to LSU last year and lost only 38-22. “This is for the warriors – it’s all about the war.”
Big Sky vs. CAA
Teams from the Big Sky Conference and the CAA have not met head-to-head on the field this season, but have split 12 playoff meetings dating to 2000.
EWU is 2-0 vs. CAA teams in the playoffs, with a 2010 semifinal win over Villanova and a 20-19 win over Delaware in the 2010 national championship game. Big Sky teams have won three straight over CAA teams in the postseason.
Big Sky teams are 4-1 against CAA teams at Big Sky stadiums, but CAA teams beat Big Sky teams in the 2004, 2008 and 2009 national championship games in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Eastern is 24-3 on the red turf since it was installed in 2010 and 7-0 at home this season. … Sam Houston State is the only non-Big Sky team to win at Roos Field since 2010. … EWU is 19-1 since 2010 in games after Nov. 1. … Towson is 8-0 on the road this season, and has won 11 straight on the road dating to last season. … EWU has outscored opponents 41-6 in the second half in two playoff games. … EWU is the second team in Big Sky history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Adams), a 1,000-yard rusher (Quincy Forte) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Kupp and Ashton Clark). … The Tigers are 4-2 against ranked teams.