The fifth-year senior – who has been bothered by a sprained right (throwing) shoulder – has participated in the team’s past couple practices, but he practiced fully Monday and said he expects to be a “full-go” when the No. 7 seed Tigers (13-2) clash with the back-to-back reigning national champion Bison (14-0).
“Just a little bit sore, but besides that, I don’t feel rusty,” Athens said after practice at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson. “I’m pretty comfortable with our game plan, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in the office. I feel pretty comfortable with what we’ve got going on.”
Coach Rob Ambrose said he anticipated that Athens would start over sophomore Connor Frazier who played the entire second half and scored the game-winning touchdown in the Tigers’ 35-31 win against No. 3 seed Eastern Washington in a national semifinal on Dec. 21.
Ambrose did say that Athens is still trying to regain the full mobility that helped him complete 64.6 percent of his passes (228-of-353) for 3,194 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“He’s stiff,” Ambrose conceded. “The injury kept him out and hurt at the time, and we might have been a little fearful at the moment. But he’s had a really good week of practice. We didn’t practice him on Friday because we were still trying to evaluate it, but after that, he’s been running with the ones ever since.”
Athens said he did not undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam on the shoulder that he injured late in the second quarter. Instead, based on Athens’ description of the pain, team doctors diagnosed the quarterback with a sprained AC joint that could heal based on treatment and rest.
The bye week between the win on Dec. 21 and the upcoming title game helped immensely.
“It’s no doubt in my mind that it’s definitely helped me out, to be able to get more treatment with our trainers,” Athens said. “I couldn’t be more blessed to have that because it’s definitely been big.”
Ambrose said the return of Athens brings back a calming and comfortable presence to the offensive huddle.
“Those guys had to go through a transition period where they go, ‘Oh yeah, Connor’s at the reins,’” Ambrose said. “… I think now, they’re happy to have [Athens] back. I think Pete is excited. For a fifth-year senior and it’s your last game and it’s the national championship, you’re really excited to be play, to play one more time for sure. Some of these guys, they’re going to take the helmet off when this game’s over, and they’re never going to put one on again. So from top to the bottom, everybody’s excited. But for him, I think it’s a little bit different.”
Athens agreed, saying, “You don’t get a lot of opportunities to play for a national championship, and I want to play this game. It’s definitely a special opportunity, and I definitely didn’t want to miss it unless I had something that was seriously holding me out.”