There are usually at least a few bumps in the road on the path to a championship game, and that was certainly the case for the Towson football team’s path to the FCS finals in 2013.
The Tigers had to get past quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s Eastern Illinois team in the quarterfinals. And it only took 49 points to do it.
Towson beat Eastern Illinois, 49-39, in Charleston, Ill., though the Tigers struggled to stop Garoppolo, who was 38-for-50 for 321 yards and two touchdowns in snowy conditions. Towson running back Terrance West ran for 354 yards and five touchdowns on 39 carries, while Darius Victor ran for 80 yards and a score on 11 carries.
The quarterfinal was Garoppolo’s final college start before heading to the NFL. Now, Garoppolo is helping lead the San Francisco 49ers into the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs Feb. 2. Rob Ambrose, the Tigers’ head coach since 2009, said he knew what kind of talent Garoppolo was on that December 2013 day against Eastern Illinois.
“Oh, God, yes. It was pretty easy to see,” Ambrose said on Glenn Clark Radio Jan. 23. “My question was why was he at Eastern Illinois? Honestly, I said, ‘He’s one of the best pure passers I’ve seen in decades.’ There are certain guys that have that gift. There’s a lot of kids that work toward it and get close to it, but on occasion genetics win out. He’s taken his God-given gift and worked his tail off to be exceptional at it. I saw it coming. Never have I been more grateful for bad weather.”
Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award as the top FCS player in 2013, when he threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns on 66 percent passing. He led an offense that scored 48.2 points per game and produced 589.5 yards a game that year, and the Eagles finished 12-2.
Garoppolo was taken toward the end of the second round (No. 62 overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, who had lost in the AFC championship game the previous season and were looking for an eventual successor to Tom Brady. Garoppolo was the fifth quarterback taken in that draft, behind Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr.
Garoppolo played in 17 games during his first three years in New England. In 2017, with Garoppolo in the final year of his rookie deal and Brady still playing at a high level, the Patriots dealt Garoppolo to the 49ers before the trade deadline. Garoppolo is 19-5 as the starting quarterback for San Francisco, including 13-3 this year.
“The craziest thing that I can say about him is I want to know who is in power with the Patriots,” Ambrose said. “Tom Brady was going to retire eventually, and this kid is the heir apparent. I can’t see how on Earth they let him get out of there, because they knew he was going to be a first-class starter in that league.”
After finishing the 2017 season strong with the Niners, Garoppolo suffered a season-ending torn ACL during the third game of the 2018 season. But his first full season as an NFL starter in 2019 was a memorable one: 3,978 yards and 27 touchdowns on 69.1 percent passing, 13 wins, the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a trip to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco is so dynamic in all phases of the game that it didn’t even need Garoppolo against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game. Garoppolo threw just eight times while the 49ers racked up 285 rushing yards and 37 points.
“You have to be able to manage a ballgame. Hell, before you can win a ballgame you have to be able to not lose a ballgame, and there are lots of guys out there with all kinds of talent that can’t figure that out,” Ambrose said. “The season is the season. Each game takes its own personality based on what the other team’s trying to take away.
“His ability to be multifaceted in Kyle Shanahan’s offense is what’s allowing them to be so successful. Yes, they’re running the ball, but there’s times when they’re not going to run the ball and they’re going to need the gift that he has in his arm.”
There are no former Towson players in the Super Bowl this year; that possibility was dashed when defensive back Tye Smith and Tennessee Titans were eliminated by the Chiefs in the AFC championship game. But there is still a Towson connection in the Super Bowl: Niners defensive quality control coach Brian Fleury, who played quarterback for the Tigers and was Ambrose’s first special teams coordinator at Towson.
Will Ambrose be pulling for Garoppolo, Fleury and the 49ers?
“[Fleury] got his feet wet coming back to his alma mater coaching. He is now on staff for the 49ers. That alone would get me there,” Ambrose said. “But truth be told, sans the XFL, I’m going to say the same thing that I say every year about this game: I just pray for a good game, because after this it’s like hockey and Major League Baseball. What else are you going to do until football begins? Please, let’s have a good game.”
Ambrose also touched on some other topics …
Towson quarterback Tom Flacco played in the Tropical Bowl this month as part of his NFL Draft preparation. Should his size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) should be a concern for NFL teams?
“There’s nobody in the league, really, that’s seeing over everyone because the linemen are so big. It’s seeing through guys. He’s no shorter than Drew Brees or any of those other great passers. The knock on him was size before, but his efficiency, his intelligence and the fact that that position is really moving toward the athletic passer — or a passer that’s athletic — more than it is just a game manager and a guy that can put the ball where it needs to be [helps him]. It’s going to be fun to see where he ends up.”
On if the athletic Flacco could take on a Taysom Hill role at the next level:
“He can return a punt. He can return kickoffs. I wouldn’t think twice about whether or not he was ever going to tackle somebody. As a matter of fact, I’d kind of worry about how hard he would do it. The ability to be multifaceted on a roster that’s that small makes you a quantity that’s wanted in multiple ways. The more he is physically capable of doing, the more opportunities he’s going to have with a ballclub. It’s only a positive.”
On how Towson’s quarterback situation could shake out in 2020 with Triston Harris, Ryan Stover and Jeff Miller returning:
“That is yet to be determined. There’s going to great competition in the spring. As the recruiting cycles and what we’re used to historically in signing dates and when kids are on campus, you might as well just put a grenade in that because with the transfer portal, it’s completely over and done. The old ways are dead. The recruiting calendar is completely and utterly revamped in reality. We went through a cycle of talking to some kids who were thinking about transferring. I’ve got some good kids that are in-house, talking to them about how their spring is expected to progress. They’re competing for a starting job, and they’re competing for a starting job against probably a guy who’s not on campus yet who will also be competing for a starting job.”
For more from Ambrose, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox