After he walked off the snow-covered field at Eastern Illinois Friday night, Towson running back Terrance West said he was pretty sure he’d never played a game quite like this one.
Snow, sleet, rain and 30-degree temperatures.
And he had no idea just how well he’d handled it.
West ran for 354 yards and five touchdowns on 39 carries, leading the Tigers (12-2) to a 49-39 win over the Panthers (12-2) and a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.
Along the way he set a new FCS playoff record for rushing yards, something he had no idea he’d done until he was asked about it after the game.
”I did?” he asked in disbelief, explaining nonetheless that he pictured himself having a big night. ”If you picture big plays, you make big plays. So I was picturing.”
What Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers watched wasn’t what he had in mind.
”I just thought this was the team of destiny. I really did,” he said.
”I can take (West’s) big plays,” he added. ”It’s all his little plays. You hit him and he keeps moving forward.”
Early in the fourth quarter, the game started to feel like it belonged to the Tigers.
They had an 11-point lead at 35-24 on West’s fourth touchdown of the night, a 5-yard run that ended with a dive across the goal line.
The Towson defense had found a way to quiet Eastern Illinois’ passing attack, keying on wide receiver Erik Lora and limiting him to short dinks and dunks from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
And the Panther crowd, chilled by two and a half hours in the cold, had gone quiet.
Faced with what felt like a must-score situation, though, Garoppolo led the Panthers back into the game, finding Jeff LePak wide open in the Towson end zone for a 39-yard touchdown. The junior receiver was 15 yards clear of any defender when Garoppolo spotted him and launched the ball.
Then the quarterback slipped the ball into a well-covered Lora’s hands just inside the end zone for two points and, suddenly, the Panthers were back within striking distance, down 35-32 with 14:35 to play.
But after a defensive stop, West and his understudy, freshman Darius Victor, all but finished them off.
West charged down the right sideline for 37 yards to the Panther 3. Victor punched the ball into the end zone on the next play and the Tigers were in control, 42-32, with just over nine minutes to play.
Garoppolo fumbled the ball as he was sacked at his own 22 during the Panthers’ next possession. He limped to the sideline and dug clumps of snow out of his face mask as the Tigers took over to polish off the game.
Garoppolo was 38-50 for 321 and two touchdowns. Lora caught 18 balls for 129 yards and a touchdown.
West’s night broke a record set by Georgia Southern back Adrian Peterson – the former Chicago Bear rather than the current Minnesota Viking – in 1999.
He came into the game considered by some the best back in the FCS with 1,993 yards rushing and 33 touchdowns.
Early in the second quarter, he lived up to his reputation, single-handedly keeping Towson in the game.
The Panthers were up 14-0 in the first quarter on a Garoppolo-to-Lora touchdown pass and another score the quarterback ran in himself.
Then West found his footing. He burst right for 47 yards to the Panther 25. Only a tackle along the right sideline by Jourdan Wickliffe kept him out of the end zone. Then the 5-11, 220-pound West bulled past Wickliffe for a 9-yard touchdown that pulled the Tigers to within a touchdown at 14-7.
Towson tied it on a 4-yard touchdown run by Wildcat quarterback Connor Frazier, and then West delivered the lead. He cut around the left end somehow squeezed into a tiny gap between the sideline and two fast-closing defenders on his way to a 63-yard touchdown. Towson was up 21-14 at the half and never trailed again..
”Getting our footing early, it took us a while,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. ”It was getting confident.”
Towson finds out Saturday who its faces in the semifinals next weekend.