By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: For the Colonial Athletic Association first-place battle between Towson University and the University of Maine, we are providing our readers with a special treat, an inside look at game preparations as the Towson Tigers travel on Friday to the Orono, ME campus and then complete game coverage on Saturday of this important contest, through Towson’s return home on Saturday night. Look for several updates throughout the weekend.
ORONO, ME. — Two coaches cornered me at the Colonial Athletic Association media day in late July to make sure I knew how improved their teams were going to be during the 2011 season.
One was Maine’s veteran, pragmatic coach Jack Cosgrove.
The other was youthful and exuberant Towson coach Rob Ambrose.
While these two coaches may be on different spectrums in terms of experience, their message at the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium Club that summer day was the same.
Watch out for our teams during the CAA race.
Cosgrove gushed about how committed his team had been during summer workouts, noting that more Black Bear players had stayed to workout together than at any time in the 18-year history of Cosgrove’s program.
“This is probably the best group of kids we’ve had since our championship years,” said Cosgrove, who led Maine to a share of Atlantic 10 titles in 2001 and 2002. “The commitment level of this team has been phenomenal.”
Ambrose usually bounces across the room like Tigger, the irrepressible, upbeat character from Winnie the Pooh, so it wasn’t surprising to see this positive thinker spouting a large smile that morning.
“We only won one game last year, but I’m telling you, we’re going to surprise a lot of people this season,” Ambrose said. “After what I saw last spring, I think we’re going to have a very good football team.”
Not many people in the press, or around the CAA, believed Cosgrove, or Ambrose at the time.
The two teams were picked to finish at the bottom of the league, even below newcomer Old Dominion after the Black Bears went 4-7 and the Tigers were 1-10.
But now, as the regular season enters the stretch run, No. 7 Maine (7-2, 5-0) and No. 14 Towson (6-2, 4-1) are set to meet at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday in a first-place showdown.
You could have gotten some pretty high odds on that happening if there had been a preseason CAA championship line in Las Vegas.
Maine has done it by limiting turnovers and playing its trademark, tough defense.
Senior quarterback Warren Smith, who transferred to Maine when Iona dropped its program in 2008 after his freshman year, was 62nd last season in FCS for passing efficiency. He also 23 interceptions, compared to 21 TD passes, in his first two years as a starter.
This season, Smith has learned to avoid mistakes and is ranked 24th in passing efficiency with 14 touchdown tosses and just four interceptions.
Cosgrove has pointed out for two years that the Black Bears also needed to put the wheels back on their traditional, ball-control running attack and senior running back Pushon Brown has given Maine a few extra gears with 723 yards rushing and eight touchdowns.
On defense, players like defensive end Michael Cole and defensive backs Jerron McMillian, Trevor Coston, Darlos James and Vinson Givens have made the high-pressure unit as effective as some of those classic Maine defenses of the past, with standouts like linebacker Stephen Cooper and defensive end Jovan Belcher.
For Towson, the winning formula has been similar to Maine’s.
There is junior Grant Enders, who has given the Tigers its most consistent play at quarterback since the great Sean Schaefer graduated in 2008.
Enders started his career at Holy Cross, sitting behind Crusader phenom Dominic Randolph for a couple of years before heading to Lackawanna Junior College. Enders is 21st nationally in passing efficiency, 33rd in total offense and has shown the ability to beat teams with both his arm and his legs.
Combine Enders’ play with the discovery of freshman running back Terrance West — probably the best first-year player in all of FCS this season — and you have an offense that has been difficult to contain.
The Tigers are almost perfectly balanced, rushing for 227 yards per game and passing for 215 to rank 10th nationally in total offense and scoring 32 points per game.
Maybe the greatest improvement has been in Towson’s offensive line. You have to give kudos to the Tiger offensive line coach John Donatelli and strength and conditioning coach Jeremy Pick for perhaps the biggest turnaround on the squad.
On defense, the Tigers have been a gritty unit that has overcome lots of injuries and other setbacks to keep opponents within reach.
Another key component to winning in the CAA is having the ability to pull games out of the fire in the late stages of games and both Maine and Towson have displayed an uncanny knack for that skill, too.
Playing in the tough environs of James Madison’s sparkling, new Bridgeforth Stadium last month, Maine managed to take the Dukes to overtime.
After JMU scored a TD to go ahead 24-17, the Black Bears came through with a TD of their own on an eight-yard pass from Smith to Justin Perillo to set up one of the best finishes of the season in college football.
Maine decided to go for two on a fake PAT when backup senior quarterback Chris Triester spread the field with just him as the holder, with the kicker Brian Harvey and the long snapper in the middle of the field.
Triester took a quick snap from center and dashed for the goal line, where he leaped as he was hit by a couple of defenders and helicoptered his way, through the air and landed in the end zone for a game-winning two-point conversion that made it 25-24 and even made ESPN SportsCenter’s top plays of the weekend.
Towson had a similar moment a few weeks back at Old Dominion when it faced a fourth and 29 play while trailing the Monarchs 35-32 in the final minute.
Enders hit Tom Ryan between a pair of defenders for a 63-yard scoring strike that lifted the Tigers to a 39-35 lead with 1:07 remaining and the Towson defense made that dramatic score hold up.
Towson also won a game earlier in the season when D.J. Soven capped a late drive with a 27-yard field goal to stop Richmond 27-24 on the game’s final play.
If we’re lucky on Saturday afternoon at Maine’s Alfond Stadium, we will see some similar dramatics from two teams that know one thought would be playing in such stratified air.