By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — If past performance were indicative of how things are going to go this Saturday, Lehigh would have nothing to worry about in the second round of the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
In 11 meetings with the Towson, Lehigh has gone 10-1 against Towson, and lit the Tigers up for more than 40 points in five of those meetings.
But nobody at Lehigh has any illusions that this Towson team will resemble those Tiger teams from the 1990s and 2000s when it hosts the Mountain Hawks Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
The Tigers’ story is an easy one to admire, going from a 1-10 season to a 9-2 record and the school’s first-ever league championship.
Towson is easy to like, too recently a member of the FCS “have nots” to be hated by anyone.
Much of the pregame accolades have been given to the easiest pick in history for for FCS Freshman of the Year, freshman RB Terrance West (1,242 yards rushing, 27 TDs). The 5’11, 220 lb Tiger has been a revelation for Towson – a rare combination of speed and power that has him a constant threat to break into the secondary, and very tough to bring down once he gets there. Against New Hampshire, he ripped off two touchdowns that accounted for 141 of his 261 rushing yards on the afternoon.
But even though Towson is a feel-good story, there is a reason these Tigers are Colonial Athletic Association champions. They are loaded with talent, like junior DE Romale Tucker (69 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks) and junior DE Frank Beltre (65 tackles, 4 sacks) frequently coming from the edges in bltizes on Towson’s aggressive defense.
Towson’s turnaround has come at least in part due to something the Tigers never were able to do as members of the Patriot League — attract transfers.
Head coach Rob Ambrose brought a couple kids from UConn with him when he took over the head coaching job after his college coach, Gordy Combs, was terminated in 2009.
Ambrose has also attracted a lot of transfers from other FBS schools as well — nine in all.
These key transfers make up three of the Tigers’ top four receiving targets, a linebacker that leads the team in interceptions and the second-leading sack artist on the squad.
So there’s no question that there’s a ton of new talent at Towson that will make this a very different experience for the Mountain Hawks.
Towson has also gotten lots of lessons in the school of hard knocks playing in the CAA.
“People keep asking me if senior QB Chris Lum is the best quarterback we’ve faced all year, but that’s a hard thing to say since we face great talent week, after week, after week,” Ambrose said. “Lehigh is an incredibly strong, quality opponent. They’d fit in our league quite well. [But] this is like another week in the CAA facing a team with a different color jersey.”
Quarterback Chris Lum (3,739 yards passing, 33 TDs) is the linchpin of Lehigh’s high-octane passing offense, with superstar targets Jake Drwal (912 yards, 9 TDs) and Ryan Spadola (1,462 yards receiving, 10 TDs) often in his sights.
On defense, linebacker Mike Groome (94 tackles, 4 interceptions) and defensive lineman Ben Flizack (36 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks), both seniors, hope to slow down Towson’s daunting offense long enough for their offense to put up the points.
Towson will look a lot more like Delaware, last year’s CAA champion and FCS national finalist that beat Lehigh 42-20 in a second-round FCS playoff game at Tubby Raymond Field than the Towson team Lehigh last defeated, 35-3, at Murray Goodman Stadium in 2003.
But playing the best is what the FCS Playoffs are all about.
There was a time not all that long ago when a team like Lehigh could have gone 9-1, played against Lafayette at the end of the year, and then it was up to voters — in the Engineers’ case, Lambert Cup voters — to determine who they thought was the “champion” of the East.
(In FBS, no matter what anybody tells you, it’s still determined in that way, no matter what computer “formulas” are used.)
But in FCS, if you are in the playoffs, there’s no place to hide.
Survive a Tiger attack from Towson, and it could be a Bison stampede from North Dakota State the next.
You play the best, and you beat the best, and you’ll have the chance to be national champions as determined on the field — the way it should be.
In FCS, the Lambert Trophy winner, given to the best team in the East, will not be in doubt when all is said and done.
If current-No. 1-ranked Lehigh beats No. 2 Towson, and James Madison, New Hampshire, and Maine all lose on the road this weekend, Lehigh will be the best team in the East, no questions asked.
The playoffs are great because it removes all pretense.
If Bill Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are,” the playoffs show even more what type of team you are, too.
By the end of the game on Saturday, we will know exactly what types of teams both of these teams are. And one of them will keep demonstrating what they are further into the playoffs, and the other team will not.
It’s going to be one interesting and fun game.
While Lehigh enjoyed an unseasonably warm Rivalry clash two weekends ago, things will be different on Saturday.
December will be felt at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson this weekend, with a high of 47, and even a very slight chance at a snow flurry. Crucially, with a 3:30 start time, it will get darker and colder at halftime, meaning the temperature will likely dip into the 40s and maybe into the high 30s when the game is complete.
There are two ways to watch the game if you haven’t already planned to make the trip to Towson.
The first is to check if your cable company carries ESPN3, ESPN’s online streaming solution for broadcast over the internet.
From there, you can watch the game on a mobile device, your computer, or, if you have an XBOX 360, on your computer.
If your cable company does not offer ESPN3, you’re in luck — thanks to fans in Montana, that is.
Thanks to the fan mutiny in the Treasure State, ESPN has made every game available as well through their pay-per-view option, ESPN Gameplan, meaning you can order the game through a “College Day Pass” through your cable company.
If you’re interested, call your local cable company for details. I have heard that the day pass is $26, and includes every college football game offered that day, so you can watch all eight FCS playoff games with that price.
More importantly, though, the fact that ESPN Gameplan is carrying the game allows folks to set up their own viewing parties of the game locally, where local watering holes subscribe to ESPN Gameplan on a regular basis.
To say that the folks at Towson are excited about this football game would be an understatement.
For years, Towson has come close to the FCS playoffs, but never been able to get over the hump.
Picked last in the CAA this year at media day, the thought of making the playoffs, never mind hosting a playoff game, might have gotten you laughed out of M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, where they hosted the event.
But the moment is here, and athletic director Mike Waddell, coach Rob Ambrose and the entire Towson athletic department have gone into overdrive promoting this playoff event at their school.
Ambrose, himself a Towson graduate, knows how rare this moment is for his alma mater.
“There’s so many sentences, statements, phrases and thoughts that have never been uttered here before,” Ambrose said in his weekly CAA teleconference. “It’s what we’re building toward and what we’re building to keep. It’s one hell of a time to be a Tiger.”
Waddell and the athletic department have also engaged in a great campaign to get fans to come to Johnny Unitas Stadium to watch the second-round matchup, making package ticket deals and making an all-out effort on Facebook and Twitter to ensure a great number of fans.
Fans can even get free tickets to see the Towson basketball team take on George Mason on Saturday evening by buying a ticket to the Lehigh football game.
The Tigers have even allotted 1,800 seats to Lehigh’s ticket office and their fans — significantly more than the 500 required by the NCAA, and allows for the many Lehigh fans who are making the trip to sit in (somewhat) friendly confines.
All week they have aired interviews and insights from Towson athletics folks, too, about the success of their football team and the appearance of President Barack Obama on their campus to watch Towson take on Oregon State in an early-season men’s basketball game.
It’s as if Towson has been sitting for years, waiting for its 15 minutes of fame and hitting the ground running.
Seriously, though, no matter what happens for their football team, it seems like everything that has transpired in the past week looks like the start of something special developing at Towson.
It sure doesn’t seem like the Tigers are content to be doormats anymore, and they’ve made this playoff game into a great event.