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Towson's young receivers coming of age in NCAA FCS tournament

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The way Arione Scott and Andre Dessenberg see it, Saturday's performance in the Towson football team's rout of Fordham is what they had been working for.

Dessenberg, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound freshman, led the Tigers in receptions (three) and yards (94) and scored a touchdown, and Scott, a 6-2, 170-pound sophomore, gained 31 yards on two catches — both for first downs — in a 48-28 victory in the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision tournament.

Their play helped make up for the absence of starters Spencer Wilkins and Leon Kinnard, who are out for the rest of the season due to undisclosed injuries.

"It takes a lot of time," Scott said. "You have to start in the spring and work through the summer and all the way up to camp. We all did the same thing — work out, watch film, make plays. If they [Wilkins and Kinnard] could do it, we could do it. It was just a matter of time of knowing when you needed to step up. They did play a vital role on our team though. So we had to step up."

Added Dessenberg: "I've been working. I have my older brothers helping me learn everything. I just did what I was supposed to do."

Dessenberg and Scott may need to post similar numbers for No. 7 seed Towson (11-2) to get past No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois (12-1) at O'Brien Field in Charleston, Ill., in Friday's quarterfinals.

Prior to Saturday, Dessenberg had caught five balls for 87 yards in 11 games, while Scott had recorded seven receptions for 84 yards in 11 games, which included two starts. Neither had reached the end zone.

Their inexperience is in stark contrast to the campaigns that Wilkins, a junior, and Kinnard, a senior, were enjoying before their injuries.

Despite missing the last four games, Wikins, an Ellicott City native and Mount Hebron graduate, still leads the offense in receiving yards (691) and is tied with senior tight end James Oboh for touchdown catches (four). Kinnard, a Reisterstown native and Loyola graduate who has sat out the last two games, still leads the team in receptions (43) and ranks second in yards (664).

"Losing those two guys in consecutive weeks certainly slowed us down a little bit, but the second half of the season has allowed some of the young guys, the first-year players, to gain a lot of experience and you can just see them getting better and better week after week," coach Rob Ambrose said. "As much as I hate missing those guys, it's allowed those young guys to step up and grow."

Peter Athens may miss Wilkins and Kinnard just as much, but the senior quarterback was tremendously efficient in the win against the Rams, completing 86.7 percent (13-of-15) of his passes for 301 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.

Athens said his faith in Dessenberg and Scott remains sound — perhaps even more so after Saturday's outcome.

"I know the receivers are going to step up behind both of them," said Athens, who completed all seven of his second-half throws for 166 yards and a score. "They both made huge plays [last week]. They've been doing well ever since [Wilkins and Kinnard] got hurt."

Scott said Athens' confidence is a boost to the receivers' morale.

"It means a lot," Scott said. "Day in and day out, we throw the ball to each other and catch each other so that we can get on the same page, so that we have that connect and Peter can know where we are on the field. That means that he trusts us. It gives us a lot of hope."

Dessenberg, a true freshman, said his development has been aided by Wilkins, who has taken Dessenberg under his wing.

"Spencer is like a mentor to me now," Dessenberg said. "Before, he always helped me, and now he's telling me what I have to do. He's basically re-routing me in his steps so that I can do everything that he did. It's a big loss for us, but at the same time, he's helping us play the way he did."

With juniors Brian Dowling and Derrick Joseph splitting time at wide receiver and return specialist (Dowling on punts and Joseph on kickoffs), Scott and Dessenberg will be relied upon to alleviate some of the pressure on junior running back Terrance West, who leads the FCS in average rushing (149.3 yards per game) and total touchdowns (34).

That spotlight may be hot, but Dessenberg said he and Scott won't shy away from the heat.

"It's not a burden," he said. "It's actually a motivation, because when people don't believe in us, we prove it to them, and that's what the team has continued to do. We prove to them that whatever they say doesn't matter because we play tackle football at the end of the day."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

Towson (11-2) @ Eastern Illinois (12-1)

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

Site: O’Brien Field, Charleston, Ill.

Radio: TowsonTigers.com

Series: First meeting

What's at stake: Towson set a school record for wins in a season and secured its first Football Championship Subdivision playoff victory with a 48-28 pasting of Fordham in the second round of the NCAA tournament last Saturday. As a reward, the No. 7 seed Tigers get to clash with Eastern Illinois, which is the No. 2 seed in the postseason. The Panthers defeated San Diego State of the Football Bowl Subdivision in their season opener, and their only loss came at the hands of Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois by a narrow four-point margin (43-39) on Sept. 21. Eastern Illinois demolished Tennessee State, 51-10, last Saturday, but is just 4-14 in the FCS playoffs. The Panthers are 6-0 at O’Brien Field this season and have not lost at home since Nov. 5, 2011, when Tennessee State escaped with an 18-17 victory. On the flipside, Towson led the FCS with a 7-0 away record and is seeking its 11th consecutive win on the road. The Tigers are just 1-1 in the FCS postseason.

Key matchup: Both teams are paced by explosive offenses that rank first and second in average points among the teams still alive in the NCAA tournament. Eastern Illinois leads the country in scoring with a 48.9 points per game average and has scored at least 34 points in every game this season. Towson ranks 13th at 38 points per game and has scored 28 points in all but one game this fall. Both defenses could be in for a long night on Friday.

Player to watch: Two of the three finalists for the Walter Payton Award — the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy — will play. Tigers junior running back Terrance West (Northwestern) leads the nation in average rushing with 149.3 yards and total touchdowns with 34 (33 rushing). Panthers senior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranks first in the country in passing yards (4,729) and is tied with Eastern Washington sophomore and fellow Walter Payton finalist Vernon Adams in passing touchdowns (51).

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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