CHENEY — Momentum shifted like a whipsaw Saturday afternoon at Roos Field, and for once it was Eastern Washington that couldn’t hang 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 defeat against 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 the FCS title 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 on Jan. 4 in Frisco.
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“When you finish the season in a loser-go-home situation, the more it’s going to hurt,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said.
“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 victory over Oregon State, was enhanced by an unbeaten run through the Big Sky Conference and tarnished only by the might-have-beens of the last 11 minutes of the game Saturday.
“We gave up some plays to some good football players,” linebacker Cody McCarty said.
Down 21-0 in the second quarter, the Eagles dealt with adversity but couldn’t handle prosperity on a chilly, foggy afternoon.
After a Towson three-and-out late in the third quarter, the Eagles’ Zach Wimberly blocked the punt, allowing Eastern Washington to take over on the Tigers’ 23.
Two plays later, Mario Brown went 5 yards for a touchdown as EWU took its first lead, 24-21 with 1:36 left in the third.
Towson (13-2) stalled on its next possession, and quarterback Vernon Adams led the Eagles on their best drive of the game, a nine-play, 82-yard masterpiece capped by his 13-yard TD pass to Cory Mitchell with 11:55 left.
Towson backup quarterback Connor Frazier, who replaced injured starter Peter Athens in the second quarter, led a ground-pounding, 75-yard drive that consumed 15 plays and almost seven minutes.
By the time running back Terrance West scored on a 3-yard run for Towson, the Eagles still had only to burn up the last five minutes with a 31-28 lead.
But their drive stalled, and Adams overthrew Cooper Kupp on fourth-and-two at the Towson 29.
With only 1:35 to play, Frazier cut through the Eagles’ defense with ease, completing four consecutive passes to the Eagles’ 34. Five plays later, the Eagles forced a third-and-goal situation at the 1 with 19 seconds left. Towson called time out, then Eastern did the same.
The Tigers called on Frazier, 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.”