(Photo Credit:Karl Merton Ferron, the Baltimore Sun)
It was a poorly-kept secret that U.S. President Barack Obama would be making the first-ever presidential visit of Towson.
The first basketball fan, whose brother-in-law is Craig Robinson, the head basketball coach of visiting Oregon State. was there to see a Division I basketball game.
But when the game was arranged last year, few folks thought that the President would be taking pictures with the CAA champion Towson Tiger football team – who were on campus preparing for their first-ever Division I home playoff game.
As a Lehigh fan, I couldn’t help but hope that the presence of the President, First Lady Michelle Obama, and the First Family would distract the Tigers just a little from their gameplans for Saturday.
The full report from the Baltimore Sun gives more details:
The First Family entered the arena about 11 minutes before the 2 p.m. tipoff.
The crowd stood and cheered. The Towson band played “Hail to the Chief.” Obama, the first U.S. president to visit the Towson campus, shook hands with fans near courtside before taking his seat. And cell phone cameras continued to flash.
During halftime, Obama spent time poising for photos with Towson’s football team, which was introduced and honored for winning the Colonial Athletic Association for the first time and qualifying for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs (the Tigers host Lehigh Saturday).
As the football players crowded around Obama, Towson football coach Rob Ambrose joked on a microphone feeding into the arena, “There’s enough president for all of you” and kiddingly threatened to make his team run 45 minutes at practice later in the day if they didn’t given the President some breathing room.
“We might have won a championship, but this might be the neatest moment of the season,” Ambrose said as his team’s picture was taken with Obama.
Unlike Northern Iowa last year, who routinely makes FCS playoff appearances, for Towson playoff appearances are as rare as Presidential visits – never mind CAA championships, which are generally won by CAA teams that also have a propensity of winning national championships. (Villanova, Richmond, Delaware and James Madison, for example.)
Since joining what is now the Colonial Athletic Association in 2004, the Tigers have enjoyed only two winning football seasons with that murderer’s row of conferencemates, and a 9-36 record over the course of the last four years.
They’ve had their share of good athletes since them – for example, OL Jermon Bushrod, who spiked the ball after a Saints touchdown on Monday Night football tonight – but they haven’t put it all together until this magical year.
There’s some real good articles out there detailing the rise of the 9-2 Tigers in the powerful CAA, and below, here are three of them.
Freshman RB Terrance West broke several school single-season scoring records with four touchdowns as he pounded the UNH defense for 261 yards on 23 carries, including a 72-yard TD burst that tied the game at the 9:48 mark of the first period.
West has 1,190 yards on the season (7.3 yards per carry), 1,016 of them in the past six games to go along with 25 touchdowns on the ground. After West’s first score, the track meet was on for the Tigers (8-2 overall, 6-1 in the CAA) and they out-raced New Hampshire to the finish line in a game that featured 14 touchdowns and 1,484 all-purpose yards combined.
“I knew this was going to be a shootout,” said Towson coach Rob Ambrose, who has directed the biggest turnaround in NCAA Division I football this season as the Tigers have improved from 1-10 to 8-2. “We knew we had to be very efficient with the ball on offense early, to be able to stay in a shootout.”
UNH kept striking back, but the mountain of points accumulated by Towson was too much for the Wildcats to overcome.
“Just what I thought could happen did happen,” said New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell. “They hit some big runs on us. West is something else, he had a dynamic presence for them. My hat goes off to this team. If you turn the ball over and don’t tackle against a team like this, your are not going to have a chance to win.”
How does a team go from worst to first? How does a program become the first ever to make the postseason in three divisions (III, II, I)? By believing that they could achieve what nobody outside of that locker room could.
Let’s compare some stats with last season. The Tigers averaged just 15.5 points per game last season and now average 34 points per contest. They rushed for just 133 yards per game last year and now average 240 yards per game this season.
But, there are several huge keys this season on offense aside from the obvious improvements. The first is turnovers as the Tigers committed 23 last year (15 interceptions) and this season, they have just 16 overall.
The second key is third down and fourth down conversions. Last year, the Tigers converted 52 of 163 (32%) third downs and 12 of 30 (40%) fourth downs. This season, Towson has converted 74 of 140 (53%) chances on third down and 13 of 22 fourth down opportunities (59%).
Defensively, the Tigers haven’t exactly been dominant, allowing around 25 points per game and around 360 yards per game. But, they have been very opportunistic.
While the offense has committed 16 turnovers, the defense has forced 24 turnovers, giving the Tigers a +8 turnover ratio. Last year’s defense forced only nine turnovers (-14 turnover ratio) and picked off only two passes all season. While the pass rush hasn’t been there all season in 2011, the Tigers have gotten more pressure on the quarterback with 22 sacks compared to 14 in 2010.
As Sean Landeta gathered his thoughts about his alma mater Friday, he found just one word that truly captured Towson’s breakthrough football season.
“Amazing,” said Landeta, a former All-American who punted for the Tigers from 1979-82. “For them to turn around and do what they’ve done, not only with the record they have but beating the top-quality teams in the FCS division is just amazing.”
“I don’t think anyone outside of them would have predicted this kind of turnaround,” Landeta said. “It’s just the players are clearly better. … They’re playing like an absolutely totally different group that you’ve seen the past two years.”
He noticed the change early in the season, when the Tigers dismantled Colgate in its Homecoming game a week after upsetting then-No. 10 Villanova. Suddenly, Johnny Unitas Stadium was starting to fill up with students.
“The team has given them something to cheer for,” said Landeta, who played for the Tigers when they were in Division II. After going 9-1 in his first year, Landeta’s teams went .500 his sophomore and junior seasons before a 7-4 season his senior year.
“There’s a million alums that played football here that always knew what this could be,” coach Rob Ambrose said. “We’ve finally been allowed to drive the thing forward, and now it’s just an awesome time to be here.”
“I shudder to think what the future holds for us,” Ambrose said. “And I can’t even bother to looking that far ahead, we just have one day at a time.”