The play was called “Hawk.” Not a terribly imaginative name and more of a nod to the Towson football team’s opponent on Saturday, the Monmouth Hawks.
As the Tigers’ offense lined up on second-and-goal at the 1-yard line, graduate student quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome waited in a shotgun formation. Pigrome waved his left hand, and graduate student center Cole Cheripko motioned from the left side of the offensive line to a position directly behind redshirt sophomore center Ralph Paige Jr.
Paige snapped the ball to the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Cheripko, who bulled his way into the end zone to give Towson a 25-14 advantage with 9:13 left in the second quarter of an eventual 52-48 win. The touchdown was one of several highlights in the program’s most explosive display in a road game since a 64-35 rout at New Hampshire on Nov. 17, 2012.
Cheripko admitted feeling slightly worried about fumbling the snap from Paige.
“That was always in the back of my mind a little bit,” he said two days later. “But when [the coaches] called it, I was so dead tired from the drive down the field that it wasn’t even in my mind. I was just trying to get the drive over with.”
Coach Rob Ambrose, whose Tigers (3-5 overall, 1-4 Colonial Athletic Association) will welcome Villanova (5-3, 3-2) to Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson on Saturday at 2 p.m, described Cheripko as a deserving candidate for the touchdown.
“Cole’s been a starter here forever, a captain, a tremendous leader, a tremendous student-athlete,” Ambrose said. “He’s going to be highly successful in his life. And as we were going along, not only did this seem like a good idea, but it seemed like a fun idea, and anytime those two things can run together in the same sentence in football, that’s what we want to do. So it was a fun day, a memorable day, one that clearly he and the offensive line will remember.”
The score was the first of Cheripko’s career since his freshman year at Northwest in Germantown when he was a quarterback. But in his sophomore year, he shifted to left tackle and defensive tackle.
“I always liked hitting people,” he said, adding that he gained six inches and 100 pounds in four years of high school. “So I knew I would fit in very well at that position.”
At Towson, where older brother Drew compiled 16 1/2 sacks and 120 tackles as a defensive end until his senior year in 2014, Cole Cheripko — who wears his brother’s No. 54 jersey — played left and right guard as a freshman before shifting to center the following season to fill the void created by a pair of transfers. At center, he is responsible for making pass protection calls.
“From playing quarterback, it came naturally, just playing that role,” he said. “It’s not too hard. I trusted the guys next to me when I was younger. So I had the confidence to be able to make the right calls, and if I did make a wrong call, I would have the guys next to me help me figure it out.”
After working alongside left tackle Andrew Garnett, left guard Aaron Grzymkowski, right guard Jean Germain and right tackle Demarcus Gilmore for two seasons, Cheripko was the lone returning starter this fall. He has worked to develop chemistry with freshman left tackle Dan Volpe, redshirt senior left guard Alex Desire, graduate student right tackle Julian Singh and Paige at right guard.
Ambrose said Cheripko’s value extends beyond the offensive line, calling him “the smartest offensive player we have.”
“He knows the offense inside and out,” he said. “But when [quarterback] Tyler Johnston, [wide receiver] Jabari Allen, and [fullback] Luke Hamilton all go down and they are the veterans of the veterans, Cole is without them for the entire season. He has single-handedly carried that load, and without him, I have no idea where we would be.”
As for Saturday’s running play for Cheripko, Ambrose acknowledged not being certain such a formation was legal until running it by officials before a game against William & Mary on Oct. 22. After that, the team practiced the play last week about “five times” per day, Cheripko estimated.
“I was just sitting at practice, and they came up to me and said, ‘Are you ready?’” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready. For what?’ They said, ‘Get under center.’ And away it went.”
Cheripko’s happiness at reaching the end zone might have been matched by his teammates, who celebrated his score on the sideline.
“He’s one of our leaders, and he’s always doing the right thing and never steering anybody the wrong way,” redshirt senior running back D’Ago Hunter said. “Just to see someone who works hard to be rewarded like that, it means a lot. … It just seemed like everybody was happy for Cole. It was just a very good time and a very good moment for everybody.”
In the wake of the touchdown, Cheripko has become somewhat of a celebrity. He said he received about 75 to 100 text messages and direct messages on Instagram congratulating him for his play. Former teammate Bryce Perkins, who transferred to Division II California University of Pennsylvania, reached out to him and said he is trying to convince the coach there to run a similar play.
Cheripko, who earned a bachelor’s in computer science last fall and is pursuing a master’s in homeland security and management, said his offensive linemates are quietly lobbying for their opportunities.
“They all go, ‘I think everybody needs to get a turn now,’” he said. “I told them that they had to learn how to take a snap from center first.”
Villanova at Towson
Saturday, 2 p.m.