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Towson's veteran offensive line tries to pave the way for an FCS tournament victory

The fact that Towson running back Terrance West leads the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing yards and touchdowns is no accident. One of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top player in the FCS, the junior is blessed with a unique blend of power, vision and speed.

He is also blessed with a massive offensive line that opens holes that concrete mixers could plow through.

"Those guys are awesome," West (Northwestern) said of the front five. "They got better each and every game and each and every year that I've been here. Those guys are my shield. Without them, I probably wouldn't be successful. I can't do everything by myself. So a lot of respect goes out to the offensive line. It starts up front. For every team, it starts up front."

The offensive line that serves as a foundation for the No. 7-seeded Tigers (10-2), who will tangle with Fordham (12-1) in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday at 1 p.m. at Johnny Unitas Stadium.

Seniors Anthony Davis, Randall Harris, Eric Pike and Doug Shaw have combined for 147 starts in four seasons. Harris (right tackle), Pike (left tackle) and Shaw (center) have not missed a start this season, and Davis (left guard) and freshman Sam Evans (right guard) have missed just two starts each.

"We're a veteran group, and even having guys like Sam Evans and [sophomore tackle] Jake Schunke come into the rotation with us and the guys that back us up, they've been able to see us grow," said the 6-foot-5, 298-pound Pike, a four-year starter and two-time All-Colonial Athletic Association first-team selection. "We've grown with each other for the past couple years, and we can feel that unity. We work well together, and we've been working well together for the past couple years. That's always a benefit for us."

The four seniors have started since their sophomore years, and that experience has helped them develop an unspoken chemistry.

"We get to know each other's tendencies, strengths and weaknesses," said the 6-4, 285-pound Harris, another two-time All-CAA first-team honoree. "Where I might lack, Eric Pike might help me out, or where Eric might lack, I might help him out. We kind of balance each other out."

Coach Rob Ambrose said the ability of the linemen to avoid serious injury has made it easier for senior quarterback Peter Athens to develop in his first year as the full-time starter, and it's furthered West's development as the team's primary tailback.

"Continuity up front — I don't want to sound trite — is the key to success," Ambrose said. "Those guys are experienced. They know how to work. They stay healthy by taking care of themselves, and they understand the sacrifices that they need to make as student-athletes to be successful in a very physical position."

West said a key thing he has noticed about the offensive linemen is their ease of communication whether they are in a meeting or a game.

"They talk," West said. "They know the schemes, they know where the play is going to hit before it even happens."

The CAA's coaches thought highly enough of the Tigers' front five to vote Harris and Pike to the all-conference first team and Shaw to the third team. Towson was the only team in the conference to boast two first-team selections on the line and three overall honorees.

The all-conference honors are rare accolades for offensive linemen, who don't have the benefit of statistics or highlight-reel plays.

But that's fine, Harris said.

"We go out there and block," he said. "We're not necessarily worried about getting recognition as long as we get the win. All we care about is getting the win. People don't understand what we go through, but just the satisfaction of getting a win and helping the team do what it can, that's what we worry about."

The Tigers' unit is a tight-knit bunch. The linemen often eat meals together either on campus or at a barbecue joint in Perry Hall, where the conversation occasionally centers on football but usually includes other subjects.

Saturday's game will be Towson's first in the FCS tournament since 2011, and the Tigers are still seeking their first win in the tourney. It may also be the last hurrah for the four seniors on the offensive line, but Pike said the players aren't getting bogged down with that burden.

"I try not to pay too much attention to that. Just trying to take advantage of the opportunity," he said. "All throughout the season, we tried to tell each other that you never know when your time is up or when your time can come. So you've got to play every play like it's your last, because you never know when you're going to get another one."

edward.lee@baltsun.com


Fordham (12-1) @ 7th seed Towson (10-2)

When: Saturday, 1 p.m.

Site: Johnny Unitas Stadium

Audio: TowsonTigers.com

Series: First meeting

What's at stake: Towson is back in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision tournament for the second time in three years, but the program is seeking its first playoff win since joining the FCS for the 1987 season. In fact, the Tigers haven’t won in the postseason since 1984, when they defeated Norfolk State, 31-21, in the Division II quarterfinals. This year, Towson earned the No. 7 overall seed, which meant the team got a first-round bye and some much-needed rest. How much that break helped will be tested against Fordham. The Rams, members of the Patriot League, received an at-large playoff bid and defeated Sacred Heart, 37-27, in last Saturday’s first-round matchup. Fordham has beaten then-10th-ranked Lehigh, Colonial Athletic Association member Villanova and even a Football Bowl Subdivision school, Temple, this season. The Rams are 5-1 on the road, while the Tigers are just 3-2 at home. Towson is seeking its 11th win, which would set a single-season program record.

Key matchup: Fordham has one of the most prolific passing offenses in the country, ranking first in the FCS in completion percentage (.704) and fourth in yards per game (358.3). Individually, junior quarterback Michael Nebrich leads the nation in completion percentage (.735) and is fourth in passing yards per game (332.2), while junior wide receiver Sam Ajala tops the FCS in receiving yards (1,526). The Tigers have allowed 216.7 passing yards per game, only No. 52 nationally, but are No. 22 overall in interceptions (15).

Player to watch: Again, Towson junior running back Terrance West (Northwestern) will be in the spotlight, leading the country in rushing average (155.4 yards per game) and running touchdowns (30). But with the Rams surrendering an average of 203.5 rushing yards and the Tigers playing the rest of the season without starting wide receivers Spencer Wilkins (Mount Hebron) and Leon Kinnard (Loyola High), West will be relied on to fuel the offense.

— Edward Lee

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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