Dec 13, 2013, 4:25 PM EDT
For the better part of the 2013 CAA Football season, there has been a common theme that the head coaches of the league’s two remaining playoff teams – Towson’s Rob Ambrose and New Hampshire’s Sean McDonnell – have repeatedly preached to their players.
That theme relates to the concept that a game is won over four quarters versus a single play and that you must approach the season as a week-by-week, and even day-by-day, process.
With both teams still alive in the national title hunt, clearly each coach’s approach to the aforementioned mindset has worked out just fine this fall. The Tigers and Wildcats hit the road this weekend for quarterfinal matchups against second-seeded Eastern Illinois (on Friday at 8 p.m.) and fourth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana (on Saturday at 7 p.m.), respectively.
“Football games are won in 60 minutes, it’s not just one quarter,” said Towson senior offensive linemen Eric Pike during this week’s CAA Football teleconference. “You have to put together all four quarters of the game.”
Ambrose’s squad became the first Towson team to ever win an FCS playoff game, handing Fordham a 48-28 defeat in last weekend’s second round to register a program record for victories in a season (11). While McDonnell’s unit is amidst its FCS-best 10th-straight postseason appearance, this year’s team is the first to ever win two tourney games after beating rival Maine, 41-27, last weekend.
Each coach should certainly be proud of what his program has already accomplished, representing CAA Football alongside just six other teams still in the playoff field. In reflecting on both teams’ successes thus far, I began thinking about the fact that at some point during the regular season, one game must have changed the outcome of their respective seasons.
Call it fate, call it whatever you want, but both Towson and UNH had that one significant game.
For Towson, the game was memorable, but not in a positive way. Of course, I’m talking about the Tigers’ heartbreaking loss to Delaware, during which they held a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter before allowing a late score, an onside kick and another score before the Hens’ game-winning two-point conversion.
As difficult as the loss was for Towson, Ambrose knew his team could learn from it.
“It hurts,” Ambrose said in the presser following the difficult 32-31 loss to UD. “But the fashion in which it happens doesn’t make it hurt any more or any less. It looks good on paper, it sounds good, it tells for a great story, but in the end it’s wins and losses.”
The Tigers responded favorably after the defeat, winning their final two conference games to secure a berth and seed in the playoff field.
“It’s just a renewal to the commitment of the goal, which is the national championship,” explained Towson senior defensive tackle Arnold Farmer in reference to what his team learned from the Delaware loss. “And now, it’s even more clear because it’s a one-game season. We have no other games except the game in front of us. It’s just focusing on the goal and being more committed to what it takes to win.”
For New Hampshire, a team that started the season 1-3 after a late-September loss at Towson, that one defining moment perhaps came two weeks later against Villanova.
UNH needed a win badly, but looked to be out of luck after Nova stud signal caller John Robertson scored on a 42-yard touchdown run with 1:09 to remaining to make it 28-21. The Wildcats had an answer, though, marching 50 yards on seven plays. Quarterback Sean Goldrich scored from four yards out with 14 seconds left, then senior running back Chris Setian ran in the clutch, go-ahead two-point conversion by rumbling into the end zone on a second-effort play.
Following the game, McDonnell also knew that the play, and the resulting 29-28 win, could have huge implications.
“We haven’t had a win like that in a long time,” McDonnell noted postgame. “We haven’t had a win like that – that type of come-from-behind fight, that don’t quit win. I’m really proud of the team.”
“I did most of the things I did out there today because I trusted this team to find a way to win, and they did,” added McDonnell.
Since that victory over Villanova, New Hampshire has won eight of nine games and is currently riding a five-game winning streak.
“We talked about what we were capable of after we were 1-3,” Goldrich said during Monday’s teleconference. “We knew we weren’t the team we wanted to be, so we tried to take it one game at a time, and that’s been our motto ever since.”
Ironically, Towson and New Hampshire were both impacted by two-point conversion plays. Whether or not one believes that those plays directly influenced the team’s mindset from that moment forward, there is no doubt that the teams have responded in a fashion that has led them to their current quarterfinal run.
It’s also clear that both Ambrose and McDonnell truly understand the importance of the single game – and even a single event – and how it relates to the position that their respective teams find themselves now.
Towson, which plays tonight on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. (ET), interestingly faces off against an EIU team that like the Tigers has defeated an FBS foe this season. The Panthers beat San Diego State, 40-19, in the season-opener, while Towson defeated UConn, 33-18, to open its season.
On Thursday, Ambrose told a local news station, “It’s the best week of practice we’ve ever had and we are excited to get on the bus and go do what we do. Ten in a row on the road; let’s make it eleven.”
Saturday’s matchup, which be can be seen on ESPN3, in Hammond, La., will be New Hampshire’s 14th game of the season. This is the most games played by a Wildcats team in program history. UNH has never advanced past the quarterfinal round in six tries, but McDonnell told the Concord Monitor that his team is aware of what it could accomplish: “The motivation is now to do something that nobody else has ever done. We’ve sort of done it already, winning two (playoff) games back-to-back, but nobody’s ever gone past the quarterfinal round. Nobody.”
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