TOWSON, Md. - The road to a Football Championship Subdivision national title does not get any easier – or shorter – for Towson.
Towson (12-0) will travel to the Pacific Northwest to face Eastern Washington (12-2) in the FCS semifinals. The game is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at EWU's Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose called this playoff run among the most important games ever played in the program's more than 40-year history. At the same time, he admits the preparation is difficult as he balances getting ready to take the field while ensuring his players take care of business in the classroom.
"At the end of the semester is the most critical time for these student-athletes academically," Ambrose said. "At the same time, these are the most critical games we will likely ever play in the history of the school. It's a rough combination to put on a kid between 18 and 21 years old…
"But, our guys are focused. They are learning to handle multiple responsibilities in times of strain and stress, and adversity seems to be something we enjoy."
Saturday's game for the Tigers will come eight days after they rallied from a 14-0 deficit to literally rush to a 49-39 victory at Eastern Illinois. In that quarterfinal game, Towson junior running back Terrance West rushed for an NCAA FCS playoff record 354 yards and scored five touchdowns in the victory over the Panthers.
"As good as Terrance is, nothing happens without that offensive line," Ambrose said. "If you go back and look at the number of starts that unit has had together, they have truly moved mountains. He's had the benefits of having one of the better offensive lines in the history of the school and the situation dictated that we had to run the ball."
West comes into Saturday's contest having finished in third place Monday for the 27th annual Walter Payton Award, given each year to the top FCS football player. Coincidentally, the award went to Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
In addition, it was Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams who placed second. Adams completed 291 of 444 passes for 4,600 yards and 53 touchdowns while throwing only 14 interceptions this season. Adams was under center as the Eagles held off Jacksonville State, 35-24, this past Saturday.
Eastern Washington is making its tenth appearance in the FCS playoffs since 1985. This includes in 2010 when the Eagles edged Delaware, 20-19, to win the FCS national championship.
"It's like the Pro Bowl times three," said Ambrose of having to face a top-flight quarterback for the third straight week. "From Fordham, to Eastern Illinois to Eastern Washington, we'll have faced the top three quarterbacks in the country by every stat you can imagine. The offense is great, the defense is good and each week the margin for error is smaller."
Eastern Washington, the Big Sky Conference champion, and Towson have never played each other before. However, this will be the Eagles' third game all-time against a Colonial Athletic Association school. They are 2-0 in previous games having beaten Delaware and Villanova in 2010.
"We need to go out there and just execute our game plan and we'll have a shot," Towson quarterback Peter Athens said.
The winner of Saturday's game will advance to the NCAA FCS Championship Game Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas.
"The main goal this year is the national championship," West said. "[After missing the playoffs last year] I looked at the seniors and saw how they hurt. The players coming back used that as motivation. We didn't want to feel like that."