These Towson Tigers are on quite a run.
Friday night in Charleston, Ill., they ran through the snow, the sleet and the Eastern Illinois defense for 472 yards.
When they finally escaped the elements, the seventh-seeded Tigers had upset the second-seeded Panthers, 49-39, in the first quarterfinal game of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
That earned Towson a spot in Saturday’s semifinal against third-seeded Eastern Washington. Yes, the same Eagles that opened the season with a rousing 49-46 upset of Oregon State.
The Eagles best come ready to play. They’ll have their hands full trying to slow down Towson’s offense.
Actually, they’ll have their hands full just trying to slow down Terrance West. Towson’s junior running back had a night for the ages on Friday.
West carried the ball 39 times for 354 yards, a new FCS playoff record. He also scored five touchdowns. That gave him 38 rushing touchdowns for the season, another FCS record.
The Tigers trailed 14-0 early in the second quarter when West burst around the right side for 47 yards. That set up his 9-yard touchdown run. He tried the left side four minutes before the half, scampering 63 yards for the touchdown that put Towson ahead to stay.
West also iced the game in the fourth quarter. After the Panthers closed to within 35-32, West broke free on a 37-yard run to the 3-yard line. Darius Victor scored on the next play.
“If you picture big plays, you make big plays,” West told the Associated Press. “So I was picturing.”
It wasn’t West’s big plays that tormented Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers.
“I can take big plays,” Babers told the AP. “It’s all his little plays. You hit him and he keeps moving forward.”
Back in 2010, West, a senior at Baltimore’s Northwestern High School, had plans to attend Clemson. But low SAT scores landed him at Fork Union Military Academy.
When Clemson lost interest, West planned to matriculate at Maryland. That plan was foiled when Ralph Friedgen was fired as the Terrapins coach. West couldn’t even walk on at Morgan State after a red tape snafu.
That’s how the Walter Payton Award finalist would up walking on at Towson. “I knew they was trying to build something,” West told the New York Times two weeks ago. “I knew I could contribute to that.”
Towson wasn’t building so much as conducting a massive construction project. The Tigers won but three games in both the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
At that point, Towson hired 1993 alumnus Rob Ambrose as head coach. Ambrose had been the offensive coordinator at Connecticut.
Ambrose also won three games. In his first two seasons. Total.
“For two years, I never said the word ‘win’ on purpose, because we were in no position to have that discussion,” Ambrose told the New York Times. “We had to coach effort. We had to get kids to actually play hard.”
The Tigers couldn’t even fill their 11,000-seat Johnny Unitas Stadium.
“I’ve been here where I could count the amount of fans in here,” senior defensive tackle Arnold Farmer told the New York Times. “And they were mostly family. The atmosphere around here now is unbelievable.”
That’s because suddenly, in 2011, everything clicked. The Tigers went 9-3 and won the Colonial Athletic Association title with a 7-1 mark. Towson became the first school to qualify for the playoffs in all three NCAA football divisions.
That season ended with a 40-38 loss to Lehigh in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
In 2012, Towson went 7-4, played tough in losses to FBS schools LSU and Kent State, but the 17th-ranked Tigers weren’t selected for the 20-team FCS playoffs.
Jilted, the Tigers vowed to leave nothing to chance in 2013. Toward that end, they opened with a stunning 33-18 defeat of UConn. West’s 156 yards and two touchdowns helped hasten the egress of Huskies coach Paul Pasqualone.
Towson won its first six games and finished with a 10-2 record. They opened the playoffs with a solid 48-28 defeat of Fordham. And after Friday night’s win, the Tigers stand a single win away from playing for the FCS championship.
“Big-time football, good football, respectable football,” Ambrose told the Times. “That’s something alums can be proud of. That’s something this place has been missing for a long time.”
Added West, who wound up at Towson as an afterthought, “I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else right now. I’m glad I came here.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays.