By David Coulson
College Sporting News
TOWSON, MD. — It might be hard to believe now, but Towson University actually trailed New Hampshire in the first quarter of its Colonial Athletic Association showdown before 8,366 fans Saturday at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
But after spotting the Wildcats a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the contest, Towson roared back for a 56-42 victory, scoring in all three phases of the game to put a league championship and automatic playoff bid within its grasp.
A victory next Saturday at Rhode Island is all that stands in the way of the first championship in the Tigers’ 43 years of playing football and would clinch the first Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth in the program’s history.
Towson could also become the first school in NCAA history to reach the playoffs in Division I, II and III. The last time the Tigers were in the playoffs was at the D-II level in 1986.
Freshman running back 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.”
After West’s first touchdown, Towson made a pair of spirited defensive plays — in between a Grant Enders to James Oboh 56-yard scoring strike — to put some distance between the Tigers and the Wildcats.
Senior defensive end Frank Beltre (12 tackles, seven solo stops) crushed UNH quarterback Kevin Decker on a fourth and one run for a one-yard loss at the Towson 44 to set up Oboh’s score on the next play.
Then on the next Wildcat drive, freshman cornerback Tye Smith made a break on a Decker sideline pass and intercepted it. Smith dashed 45 yards for a touchdown to make it a 21-7 Tiger lead.
That left New Hampshire chasing Towson the rest of the night in this battle between two of the teams tied for the CAA lead coming in.
The two teams traded touchdowns the rest of the way, with Towson doing its best to shorten the game with its running game in the second half.
The Tigers built leads of 21 points four different times, using a 69-yard scamper by West in the second quarter to scoot ahead 42-21 and a 93-yard kickoff return by Derrick Joseph to start the second half as huge adrenaline boosts.
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.”
Enders out-dueled UNH’s Decker in a battle of two of the top quarterbacks in the CAA. Enders was 14-of-18 for 183 yards, a pair of scores to Oboh (three catches for 97 yards) and just one interception.
Decker was 36-of-46 for 389 yards passing and one TD and added a career-high 75 yards on the ground with 12 carries and two touchdowns, but as the heady senior was forced to play catch-up, he made several ill-advised decisions and it led to three interceptions and one lost fumble.
Tye Smith was in on three of the four UNH turnovers, collecting a pair of interceptions and one fumble recovery. Smith added nine tackles on a day when linebacker Matt Evans tallied 19 (nine solo stops) for UNH and safety Jordan Dangerfield picked up 16 tackles (10 solo stops) for Towson.
“My hat goes off to this team,” said McDonnell. “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.”
With another win secured, Ambrose turned his attention to the fact that Towson likely clinched at least an at-large berth in the playoffs with the win.
“If they don’t let us in the playoffs, something is ridiculously wrong in the world,” said Ambrose. “Yes, we’re going to the playoffs.”
No team from the current CAA has missed the playoffs with eight wins since Villanova was denied with an 8-3 record after finishing in a four-way tie with Hofstra, Maine and William & Mary for the 2001 Atlantic 10 crown.
No league had ever received four bids to the playoffs in a given year in FCS at that time of a 16-team playoff field and Villanova’s loss to Division II Lock Haven was enough to keep it on the sidelines, despite the presence of running back Brian Westbrook in its lineup.
But now in the second year of a 20-team playoff bracket for FCS, Towson already has a resume nearly as solid as that Villanova team, with its only losses coming to a BCS team (Maryland) in a competitive game (28-3 loss without Enders in the lineup) and to defending national finalist Delaware.
The Tigers have also beaten both Maine and New Hampshire in games with first place on the line in the past weeks.
Ambrose also pointed out that the road to such heights had been accomplished one day at a time during his three years as the head coach of his alma-mater.
“It was a goal from the first day I got here, but you can’t get there by focusing on that goal,” said Ambrose. “There are a million little things to do to get there.”
(Photo Credits: Rich Riggins and Brendan Cavanaugh, Towson Athletics)