Momentum shifted like a whipsaw Saturday afternoon at Roos Field in Cheney, and for once it was Eastern Washington that couldn’t hold on.
The Eagles couldn’t hold a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, and even when it was over, couldn’t grasp the reality of a 35-31 FCS semifinal loss to Towson that for the second year in a row left them in the ditch on the last stretch of the road to Frisco, Texas.
The players slumped back to the locker room, some with eyes welling, others slumping in their lockers, barely able to speak after missing out on a chance to play in the FCS championship game.
Instead it will be Towson, which scored the winning touchdown with 17 seconds left, that will face two-time defending champion North Dakota State in the title game on Jan. 4 in Frisco.
“When you finish the season in a loser-go-home situation, the more it’s going to hurt,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said.
“Everybody in the locker room is hurting, but they should have their heads held high.”
By that, Baldwin meant the accomplishments of a 12-3 season that opened with a win over Oregon State of the Pac-12, was burnished with an unbeaten run through the Big Sky Conference and tarnished only by the might-have-beens of the last 11 minutes of Saturday’s game.
“We gave up some plays to some good football players,” linebacker Cody McCarty said following the Eagles’ third semifinal appearance in four years.
Down three touchdowns in the second quarter, the Eagles dealt with adversity but couldn’t handle prosperity on a chilly, foggy afternoon.
After a Towson three-and-out late in the third quarter, the Eagles’ Zach Wimberly blocked the punt, allowing Eastern to take over on the Tigers’ 23.
Two plays later, Mario Brown went 5 yards for a touchdown as Eastern took its first lead of the game, 24-21, with 1:36 left in the third quarter.
Towson (13-2) stalled on its next possession, and quarterback Vernon Adams led the Eagles on their best drive of the game, a nine-play, 82-yard masterpiece capped by his 13-yard touchdown pass to Cory Mitchell with 11:55 to play.
It was Adams’ 55th touchdown pass of the season – and his last, as it turned out.
Towson backup quarterback Connor Frazier, who replaced injured starter Peter Athens in the second quarter, led a ground-pounding, 75-yard drive that consumed 15 plays and almost 7 minutes.
By the time running back Terrance West scored on a 3-yard run, the Eagles had only to burn up the last 5 minutes. But the drive stalled, and Adams overthrew Cooper Kupp on fourth-and-2 at the Towson 29.
With only 1:35 left, Frazier cut through the Eagles defense with ease, completing four straight passes to the Eagles 34. Five plays later, the Eagles forced a third-and-goal situation at the 1 with 19 seconds left. Towson called timeout, then Eastern did the same.
Disdaining a tying field goal, the Tigers called on Frazier again, and he shoved his way into the end zone for the winning score.
After the kickoff, Adams’ desperation toss was intercepted by Christian Carpenter.
“I’m numb,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. “It’s a little surreal. I’m wet from the Gatorade. I love my kids and I’m so proud of them.”
Towson, which won its 12th straight road game, got off to a fast start, marching 75 yards down the wet, slippery field on its first possession, with Athens throwing a 1-yard TD pass to Emmanuel Holder for a 7-0 lead.
Eastern moved down the field on its first possession, but receiver Kupp fumbled on Towson’s 12 and the Tigers recovered. Derrick Joseph caught passes of 50 and 16 yards for Towson, and West dove over from the 1 for a 14-0 lead. It was West’s FCS-record 40th TD of the season, 39th on the ground.
After a pair of EWU punts, Towson drove 91 yards in seven plays to take a 21-0 lead.
Eastern finally scored when Adams threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Forte midway through the second quarter.
Towson fumbled on its next possession and Eastern Washington’s Will Katoa recovered on his own 36. Starting with 2 minutes left in the half, the Eagles drove to the 1, but time expired when Adams was stopped while trying to run into the end zone.
Adams threw for 394 yards and two touchdowns for Eastern, which outgained the Tigers 580 yards to 483.