CHARLESTON, Ill. – Junior running back Terrance West broke the NCAA FCS playoff record with 354 rushing yards on 39 attempts and scored five touchdowns to lead the fifth-ranked Tigers (12-2) to a 49-39 victory over No. 2 Eastern Illinois (12-2) in the NCAA FCS quarter-finals before a crowd of 3,850 and a national TV audience on ESPN2 at snow-covered O’Brien Field on Friday evening.
With the win, the Tigers advanced to the NCAA FCS semi-finals next week. The Tigers will play the winner of the Eastern Washington-Jacksonville State game which will be played on Saturday.
One of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, West increased his seasonal total to 39 touchdowns, tying the NCAA FCS single season record for touchdowns scored. He shares the record with Omar Cuff of Delaware, who scored 39 TD’s in 2007.
West, who wasn’t aware that he broke any records, admitted that he doesn’t worry about records. He said, “I’m not concerned about records. This is all about winning. We came into this game well-prepared and the offensive line did a great job blocking.”
However, the Tigers weren’t as prepared for the snow that covered the field, thanks to a snow storm that started two hours before kickoff.
“It took us a while to get used to the snow,” said Towson Coach Rob Ambrose. “We have never even practiced on a snowy field. Once we figured out what we could, we were fine.”
Led by senior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois wasted little time showing off its fast-break offense. That averaged 48 points per game.
On their opening drive, the Panthers marched 76 yards on 17 plays in 4:47. They took a 7-0 lead when Garoppolo threw a three-yard touchdown pass to All-American Erik Lora with 10:13 left in the first quarter. On their opening drive, the Panthers converted two fourth down opportunities.
After the Tigers went three-and-out on the first possession, the Panthers offense went back to work. They drove 63 yards on six plays and extended their lead to 14-0 when Garoppolo scored on a six-yard touchdown run.
After that touchdown, the game turned dramatically.
On their second possession, the Tigers put together a solid drive. Led by West, the Tigers reached the Eastern Illinois nine-yard line. However, the Panthers’ defense stopped West on fourth down-and-two.
After the Tiger defense forced the Panthers to punt, West burst through the right side for a 47-yard run to the Panthers’ 25-yard line. On that run, he broke the Towson single season rushing record of 2,016 yards. Tony Vinson set the record in 1993.
Four plays later, West scored his 35th touchdown of the season on a nine-yard run and the Tigers cut their deficit to 14-7 with 12:40 left in the first half.
After the Tiger defense stopped Eastern Illinois on its next drive, the Tigers had another impressive drive. Towson marched 63 yards on 10 plays and tied the game at 14-14. After a 22-yard run by Darius Victor, back-up quarterback Connor Frazier scored on a four-yard touchdown run with 8:21 left in the half.
The Tigers took their first lead of the game when West scampered around left end and broke a few tackles on his way to a 63-yard TD run. That gave the Tigers a 21-14 lead with 4:39 left in the half.
Towson missed a great scoring opportunity when Victor fumbled at the Panthers’ eight-yard line. However, Keiondre Gober fumbled at the Panthers’ 44-yard line and Ryan Delaire recovered for Towson.
On the final play of the first half, Drew Evangelista attempted a 31-yard field goal but the kick was blocked by Pat Wertz and the teams went to halftime with Towson leading, 21-14.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Jordan Love fumbled and the Panthers recovered at the Towson 36-yard line. Six plays later, Garoppolo scored on a one-yard run and Eastern Illinois tied the game, 21-21 with 13:15 left in the third quarter.
The game wasn’t tied for very long. On their next possession, the Tigers went 75 yards on seven plays in just 3:15. West scored his third touchdown of the game on a six-yard run to give Towson a 28-21 lead.
On their next possession, the Panthers drove deep into Towson territory where the drive stalled. Cameron Berra kicked a 28-yard field goal and Eastern Illinois cut its deficit to 28-24.
When West capped off a 70-yard, 10-play drive with a five-yard touchdown run, the Tigers had their biggest lead of the game at 35-24.
Early in the fourth quarter, Eastern Illinois cut its deficit to 35-32 when Garoppolo threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Jeff LePak. The Panthers also scored on the two-point conversion to pull within 35-32.
A 59-yard punt by Evangelista pinned the Panthers deep in their own territory. When Scott Weatherford punted from his own end zone, the Tigers took over at the Panthers’ 42-yard line. Three plays later, Victor scored on a three-yard run and Towson led, 42-32.
A sack by Delaire at the Eastern Illinois 22-yard line forced a fumble by Garoppolo that was recovered by Syd Holt. With 7:33 remaining, West scored on a three-yard TD run for his fifth touchdown of the game and a 49-32 lead.
It marked the third time this season that West scored five touchdowns in a game.
With 3:08 left, Ryan Meyer closed out the scoring for Eastern Illinois when he scored on a 10-yard run, making the lead 49-39.
Senior linebacker Alexander DiSanzo recovered the onsides kick and the Tigers ran out the clock.
The Tigers finished the game with 587 yards of total offense, including 472 rushing yards. Victor added 80 yards on 11 carries and scored one touchdown.
In the final game of his career, Garoppolo completed 38 of 50 passes for 321 yards and two touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Erik Lora caught 18 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.