CHENEY, Wash. — Numb. Surreal. And, thanks to a Gatorade bath, wet.
Those were the three words Towson football head coach Rob Ambrose used to describe his feelings Saturday after his program's five-year rebuilding journey culminated in a 35-31 win over Eastern Washington and a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision national championship game.
With its dramatic comeback at Roos Field, the No. 7 seed Tigers will face No. 1 seed North Dakota State on Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas.
Their ticket was punched with an improbable fourth-quarter comeback. Down 31-21, playing with a backup quarterback and reeling from 31 unanswered Eagles points, quarterback Connor Frazier led Towson to touchdown drives of 75 and 71 yards in the final 11 minutes to retake the lead for good.
"Belief, faith, trust, hard work. They're pretty powerful things. You put them all together, you can accomplish things that people told you nobody [could] ever do," Ambrose said. "These kids were brought here on a dream, a chance to make history, to do things that have never been done."
With 17 seconds left, Frazier sneaked over the goal line from 1 yard out for the winning points, capping the clinching 71-yard drive.
At different points Saturday, the teams traded complete control of the game. Towson jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first half, the largest first-half deficit Eastern Washington had faced all season, before Eastern Washington cut the lead to 21-7. The Eagles eventually took a 31-21 lead in the third quarter.
Quarterback Vernon Adams spurred the comeback, making plays with his legs (11 carries for 65 yards) and arm (28-for-42 passing for 394 yards, two touchdowns and one interception).
"We knew what we were doing," Adams said. "We went into halftime calm. I was seeing everything fine that I saw on film. I just needed to make plays. I wasn't doing that the first half. Second half, we came out, adjusted to some things. We did better in the second half. Just unfortunate we came out short."
Towson rolled in the first half with senior quarterback Peter Athens (8-for-9 passing for 144 yards and two touchdowns), who frustrated Eastern Washington's defensive line and made savvy plays downfield.
Momentum swung back to the Eagles when Athens took a hard hit on the shoulder as he scrambled outside the pocket. After Athens fumbled a snap, Ambrose had to know whether his quarterback could go.
"I said, 'You're one of the toughest dudes I've ever met in my life,'" Ambrose said. "If you can't go, you've got to tell me. I'm really impressed that he put the team in front of himself [by telling me]."
Athens' injury played a part in Towson's second-half struggles, Ambrose said, but Frazier stepped up in relief, finishing with 196 total yards and his go-ahead touchdown carry.
"Honestly, [Ambrose] just said, 'Let's have some fun,'" Frazier said. "Being the backup, I have to be prepared for anything. That's how I approach each week. I felt pretty confident in the game plan this week."
Adams and the Eagles outscored the Tigers 17-0 during a third quarter in which Adams was 8-for-11 for 131 yards and led three scoring drives.
But after Towson's Terrance West scored on a 3-yard run to make it a one-possession game again, Eastern Washington couldn't respond. Vernon Adams' fourth-and-2 pass was floated just past the fingertips of a wide-open Cooper Kupp, and the Tigers regained possession at its 29 with just under two minutes to go.
A remorseful Adams blamed himself after the game, but Eagles linebacker Cody McCarthy vehemently disagreed.
"Vernon didn't let this team down. The things he's able to do in incredible situations, most people can't. He makes plays," McCarthy said. "As a team, we came up a couple points short. ... We'll be back at it again. No doubt about it, I'd go to war with this man any day."
On Adams' final pass of the game, safety Christian Carpenter came down with a decisive interception to put the Tigers in the title game for good.
"The final drive, we said, 'Look, this is our season right now. Either we stop them or we're going home,'" Carpenter said. "That was all in our head. We didn't want to stop playing."
This is the Tigers' first time in the FCS national championship. Until this year, they hadn't even won an FCS playoff game. For Ambrose, it's a culmination of a five-year rejuvenation of a program that went 3-9 the year before he arrived.
"[We're] at a place where people said it couldn't be done, and these kids didn't listen to any of it," Ambrose said.
NOTES: West set the FCS single-season record for rushing yards, ending the night with 2,404. Jamaal Branch set the record at Colgate in 2003, with 2,326 yards. ... Eastern Washington freshman Cooper Kuff, winner of the Jerry Rice award for top receiver in FCS, finished the night with 124 yards on eight receptions. ... Towson backup quarterback Connor Frazier also serves as a receiver and holder and saw plays in the first half as a receiver, though he did not catch any passes.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun