By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
ELON, N.C. — The last time this writer had crossed paths with Towson quarterback Connor Frazier, it was in the aftermath of his one-yard touchdown sneak with 17 seconds left that lifted the Tigers into the 2013-14 national championship game with a 35-31 victory at Eastern Washington.
Frazier came off the bench that day to relieve injured starter Pete Athens and sparked Towson to two fourth-quarter, touchdown drives in the snow of Roos Field. The picture of Frazier slipping into the end zone will forever remain as my biggest memory of covering that game.
So when Towson found itself needing a similar comeback on Saturday afternoon as the Tigers opened Colonial Athletic Association play against a Phoenix squad that hadn’t won one a league contest since its days as a Southern Conference team, like mosts of his coaches and teammates, I anticipated another comeback win.
“It’s what we do at Towson,” Tiger coach Rob Ambrose said. “We expect to win games like that.”
But in the torrential rains of Rhodes Stadium, as 8,027 cold and wet fans watched on parent’s weekend, even Frazier couldn’t overcome one of the weirdest finishes any of us had ever witnessed.
The result was a stunning 17-13 victory for beleaguered Elon (2-2).
“It’s a big day at Elon,” Phoenix coach Rich Skrosky said in his post-game press conference. “I can’t tell you how happy I am for everybody, the players, obviously, first and foremost. I keep saying we’re going to get better and better, and (Saturday) was a reflection of that.”
When Towson, with its usually dominating running attack took a 13-0 lead less than 12 minutes into the game, the last thing most people were expecting was that this contest would still be up in the air on the final play.
Of course, no one was anticipating that the Tigers would lose the leading rusher in the Football Championship Subdivision, Darius Victor, as he twisted his ankle on his four-yard spurt across thew goal line at the eight-minute mark of the first quarter.
Victor was coming off a 207-yard rushing performance a week earlier in a 29-26 home win over Holy Cross that resulted in the senior being named the CAA offensive player of the week.
We didn’t expect that Towson (2-2) would also lose promising third-string, tailback Shane Simpson to another leg injury in the second quarter. This following Simpson’s speedy, 49-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter that gave the Tigers their 13-0 lead.
In just nine carries, on the rain-slicked natural grass, Simpson had ran for 72 yards and caught a pair of passes.
“We don’t have a healthy running back on the roster right now,” said Ambrose, who was quick to note he was stating facts and not making excuses.
On the extra point attempt, Frazier couldn’t hang on to a low snap and was tackled. It was a play that would loom large at the end.
If the injuries were not enough of a bad omen, Elon’s first touchdown might have cast some further doubt.
Phoenix redshirt-freshman quarterback Connor Christensen, who struggled to hang onto the ball throughout the game, tossed a wobbly duck of a pass near the goal line in the final minute of the first quarter.
It was one of many Billy Kilmer-like throws that Christensen (14-of-22 for 133 yards passing) made on the wet day and it appeared that it would be intercepted. But after a mistimed leap by one of Towson’s cornerbacks, the ball ended up in the hands of Tereak McCray, who made a terrific catch for the 35-yard touchdown.
Elon’s defense gave of chunks of yardage over the next three quarters, but no points. The Phoenix, led 16 tackles and a sack from middle linebacker John Silas and 12 more from weakside linebacker Corey Mitchell, recovered three fumbles, intercepted one pass and held Towson to 5-of-16 on third-down conversions and 3-of-9 on fourth-down attempts.
Even without its normal stock of running backs, Towson rushed for 248 yards — 132 of those coming on 20 carries from Frazier — and built a 399-205 advantage in total offense.
Frazier was 19-of-34 passing for 151 yards, but was hampered by plenty of drops in the poor conditions. The Tiger passing attack was also unable to loosen up the defense by throwing deep.
Both the first and second halves were opened by fumbles from the respective teams, adding to the oddities of this contest. Those were two of nine fumbles, five of them lost, that the sides combined for on this day.
The difference was that when receiver Corey Joyner was stripped of the ball by cornerback Augusto Augustine, who recovered the fumble on the first play of scrimmage, Towson was stopped on fourth and two from the Elon 16.
When Elon linebacker forced Frazier to fumble at the start of the third quarter and scooped up the loose pigskin, the Phoenix needed just two plays to forge its lead.
After Christensen hit McCray (three catches for 65 yards) on a 21-yard strike, tailback Brandon Gentry (14 carries, 48 yards) powered in from the five and John Gallagher’s extra point put Elon in front, 14-13.
Gallagher would figure into the goofy side of play later on in the third quarter, following Elon’s defensive stop when Towson failed to pick up a fourth and six at the Phoenix 27.
Silas recorded Elon’s lone sack of the day, hurling Frazier for a 10-yard loss and the Phoenix moved to the Tiger 28 to set up Gallagher’s field-goal attempt from 45 yards.
Gallagher’s strong-legged effort, through the wind and rain hit the right upright, seemed to hover for a split-second and then caromed over the crossbar for three points, increasing Elon’s lead to four with 3:02 left in the period.
From there, the Phoenix defense needed to repeatedly batten down the hatches as Towson moved the ball to the Elon 10, the 50 twice and the 15 on four of the Tigers’ five fourth-quarter possessions.
Particularly costly was Frazier’s play-action pass early in the fourth quarter that trickled off the fingertips of wide-open, tight end Tanner Vallely in the end zone. On the next play, Frazier was stuffed on fourth and one from the 10.
On the final drive, Frazier took over with 2:08 on the clock and 75 yards to negotiate. The senior QB converted a fourth and one with his read-option run for 26 yards to the Elon 29 and his clutch, seven-yard toss to Christian Summers on fourth and three to give Towson another first down at the 15 with 11 seconds remaining.
But instead of closing out a comeback, chaos ensued for Towson.
The clock was stopped to reset the chains and with Frazier attempting to spike the ball, the slippery sphere came out of his hands and was ruled a fumble. Frazier recovered it and tried to reset his offense for another spike attempt that appeared successful to the naked eye with one second remaining.
Instead, the clock kept going to zero as Elon players and fans stormed onto the field.
After a video review, the officials ruled that the game was over and Elon had its long-anticipated first CAA victory and snapped a 14-game conference losing skid that had extended over two years and two leagues — the last Phoenix conference win coming over Furman in 2013.
“Give Elon a lot of credit,” said Ambrose. “They had a good game plan and they did a good job of executing.”
Frazier seemed as stunned as everyone else on the Tiger sideline that this comeback had fallen short.
“We had our chances and we couldn’t capitalize today,” said Frazier. “We have a mentally tough group. I think we’ll bounce back.”