CHENEY — Momentum shifted like a whipsaw Saturday afternoon at Roos Field, and for once it was Eastern Washington that couldn’t hold on.
The Eagles couldn’t hold a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and, even when it was over, couldn’t grasp the reality of a 35-31 loss to Towson that for the second consecutive year left them in the ditch on the last stretch of the road to Frisco, Texas.
The players slumped back to the locker room, some with eyes welling, others slumping in their lockers, barely able to speak after missing out on a chance to play in the FCS championship game.
Instead it will be Towson, which scored the winning touchdown with 17 seconds left, that will face two-time defending champion North Dakota State in the title game Jan. 4 in Frisco.
“When you finish the season in a loser-go-home situation, the more it’s going to hurt,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin, whose team made its third semifinal appearance in four years. “Everybody in the locker room is hurting, but they should have their heads held high.”
By that, Baldwin meant the accomplishments of a 12-3 season that opened with a win over Oregon State, was burnished with an unbeaten run through the Big Sky Conference and tarnished only the might-have-beens of the last 11 minutes of Saturday’s game.
“We gave up some plays to some good football players,” Eagles linebacker Cody McCarthy said.
Down three touchdowns in the second quarter, the Eagles dealt with adversity but couldn’t handle prosperity.
After a Towson three-and-out late in the third quarter, Eastern’s Zach Wimberly blocked the punt, allowing the Eagles to take over on the Tigers’ 23.
Two plays later, Mario Brown went 3 yards for a touchdown as Eastern took its first lead of the game, 24-21, with 1:36 left in the third quarter.
Towson (13-2) stalled on its next possession, and quarterback Vernon Adams led Eastern on a nine-play, 82-yard drive capped by his 13-yard touchdown pass to Cory Mitchell with 11:55 to play.
It was Adams’ 55th touchdown pass of the season — and his last, as it turned out.
Towson quarterback Connor Frazier, who replaced injured starter Peter Athens in the second quarter, led a 75-yard drive that consumed 15 plays and almost 7 minutes.
By the time running back Terrance West scored on a 3-yard run, the Eagles had only to burn up the last 5 minutes. But the drive stalled, and Adams overthrew freshman Cooper Kupp on a fourth-and-2 play at the Towson 29.
With 1:35 left, Frazier cut through the Eastern defense, completing four consecutive passes to get Towson to the Eagles’ 34. Five plays later, Eastern forced a third-and-goal situation at the 1 with 19 seconds left. Towson called timeout, then Eastern did the same.
Disdaining a tying field goal, the Tigers called on Frazier again, and he shoved his way into the end zone for the winning score.
After the kickoff, Adams’ desperation heave was intercepted by Christian Carpenter.
“I’m numb,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. “It’s a little surreal. I’m wet from the Gatorade. I love my kids, and I’m so proud of them.”
Towson got off to a fast start, with Brian Dowling’s 38-yard touchdown catch giving the Tigers a 21-0 lead with 10:32 left in the first half.
Eastern finally scored when Adams threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Forte midway through the second quarter.
Towson fumbled on its next possession, and Eastern’s Will Katoa recovered on the EWU 36. Starting with 2 minutes left in the half, the Eagles drove to the 1, but time expired when Adams was stopped while trying to run into the end zone.
“I saw a crease and didn’t get it,” Adams said.
Adams threw for 394 yards and two touchdowns for the Eagles, who outgained the Tigers in total yards, 580-483.
Adams tried to pin the fault on himself after the game, but 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.”