The Towson football team has already set benchmarks that will be difficult to match or exceed in future years: a single-season record of 12 victories, two NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoff wins and the program's first appearance in the tournament semifinals.
But with little time between the No. 7 seed Tigers' 49-39 upset of No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois in a tournament quarterfinal Friday night and their game at No. 3 seed Eastern Washington on Saturday at 2 p.m., coach Rob Ambrose said there hasn't been much opportunity to sit back and enjoy the team's accomplishments.
"When it's all said and done and we look back on it, this will be a year to remember, I'm sure. I'd be crazy not to say that," he said. "But while you're in the thick of it, there's nothing left to be said, but we're not done yet and we're not satisfied, and we will be when it's over."
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Ambrose's thoughts have trickled down to his players, and were echoed by senior left tackle Eric Pike.
"We're not satisfied with anything we've done up to this point," he said. "We're about getting better every day."
After Towson (12-2) defeated the Panthers in a driving snow and subfreezing temperatures in Charleston, Ill., Saturday's forecast of partly cloudy skies and a high of 30 degrees in Cheney, Wash., might seem balmy to the team. But there are other challenges associated with trying to knock off the Eagles (12-2).
Eastern Washington plays on Roos Field, where the red turf — installed in 2010 — almost camouflages the red jerseys worn by the Eagles. While Towson is making its first trip to the semifinal round, this is Eastern Washington's third appearance in the last four years. And the Tigers will play on the West Coast for the first time since Nov. 4, 2000 when that squad dropped a 45-33 decision to St. Mary's (Calif.).
Those obstacles weren't lost on Ambrose.
"Going to the West Coast to play them, it's different," he said. "It just is, and our guys don't have any experience with that. We're doing our best to create a schedule that is most conducive for their success."
A win would mean the Tigers would have a week off before the Jan. 4 title game.
"The good news is the jet lag for an East Coast person happens after, on the way home," Ambrose said. "So if we find a way to win this one, it means we don't have to turn around and play next week all beat up and jet-lagged. It's going to be a challenge."
Junior running back Terrance West, one of two Walter Payton Award finalists who will take the field Saturday (Eagles sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams is the other), said the team is approaching the playoff game as it would a regular-season game.
"It's just another game," said West, who set an FCS playoff single-game record when he rushed for 354 yards and five touchdowns against Eastern Illinois. "I mean, it's a big game. This is the final four, but we've got to go in there with the mindset that it's just another game. Nothing's going to change. So we've just got to do what we've been doing all year round, and that's just take play after play."
Pike said he is confident that the enormity of the national stage would not unnerve him and his teammates.
"It was our first time being in the position that we were in last week," he said. "So we just approach each week trying to get better every day and making sure we're doing what we have to do to put ourselves in the best position."
The good news for Towson is the team has thrived on the road, winning 11 straight games away from Johnny Unitas Stadium, including eight this season.
Then again, Eastern Washington is undefeated at home (7-0), but Ambrose said the Tigers have the right attitude on the road.
"[O]ur guys have done a great job on the road, staying focused," he said. "It doesn't matter how far it's been."
Towson is just one victory away from playing for the national championship at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 4. While that possibility seems remote now, senior middle linebacker Monte Gaddis said he and his teammates are intent on realizing an objective they had established in the preseason.
"At the beginning of the season, we had set a goal to not just go to the national championship, but to win the whole thing, and our job is not finished yet," he said. "So we're just going to focus on our next game and try to get there."
Towson (12-2) @ Eastern Washington (12-2)
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Where: Roos Field, Cheney, Wash.
Series: First meeting
What's at stake: No. 7 seed Towson's season continues to roll on after last Friday's thrilling 49-39 upset of No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois in an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision tournament quarterfinal in Charleston, Ill. Next up on the Tigers' docket is a semifinal date with No. 3 seed Eastern Washington, which took care of Jacksonville State, 35-24, last Saturday. The Eagles knocked off Football Bowl Subdivision member Oregon State, 49-46, in their season opener and since dropping back-to-back contests to Toledo on Sept. 14 and Sam Houston State on Sept. 28, they have run off 10 consecutive wins. Unlike Towson, which is making the program's first-ever appearance in the semifinals, Eastern Washington has advanced to the final four for the third time in the last four seasons, winning the national championship in 2010. The Eagles are 7-0 at Roos Field this season. Meanwhile, the Tigers are a perfect 8-0 on the road and have won their last 11 games away from Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Key matchup: Both teams boast prolific offenses. Eastern Washington's unit is ranked sixth in scoring (40.1 points per game) and fourth in total offense (530.1 yards), while Towson is 10th in scoring (38.8) and 12th in offense (471.9). That puts the onus on the defenses to find a way to slow the game to a crawl. The Tigers are 24th in points allowed (22.6) and 34th in total defense (353.4). The Eagles are slightly worse, ranking 68th in points (27.8) and 104th in total defense (455.9). The unit that can frustrate the opposing offense the most could propel its program to the title game on Jan. 4 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Player to watch: Just like last Friday's quarterfinal, two of the three finalists for the Walter Payton Award will meet. Towson junior running back Terrance West (Northwestern) set an FCS playoff record with 354 yards and five touchdowns against Eastern Illinois. Eastern Washington sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams ranks second in the country in passing yards (4,600) and is tied with Payton Award winner Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois for the most passing touchdowns (53).