By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Hope spring eternal on Labor Day weekend in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Every team from the Football Championship Subdivision dreams of becoming the next Appalachian State, or James Madison with an attention-getting victory over their Football Bowl Subdivision opponents as they play in what are lovingly referred to as money games.
Two Colonial Athletic Association squads, Towson and Villanova had those dreams as the college football season got underway on Thursday and Friday nights — realistic thoughts for squads that figure to battle for CAA honors and the NCAA Division I playoffs this season.
Playing against teams that looked potentially vulnerable, Towson and Villanova had reason to feel confident as they opened the season. But those aspirations didn't take long to fade as Towson dropped a 41-21 decision at Kent State and Villanova fell 41-10 to Temple.
There are reasons that a team like McNeese State closes out a 27-21 win over Middle Tennessee State and Eastern Washington hammers out a 20-3 victory over Idaho on Thursday.
And there are just as many reasons why a Towson, or a Villanova comes up short.
ONE WILD WEEKEND
I love the first weekend of the college football season because it affords the writer who covers FCS nationally the opportunity to see a ton of games in four games.
How many times can you have the opportunity to be at Kent State's Nix Stadium on a Thursday evening and then fly back in time to be at Lincoln Financial Field a night later?
My wild, holiday weekend will continue on Saturday with an FCS vs FBS doubleheader as I drive to Greenville, N.C. to watch Appalachian State play at East Carolina at noon before I hustle over to Winston-Salem to witness Liberty's game at Wake Forest.
On Sunday, I'll make it up to the Rock in preparation for next week's Montana-Appalachian State showdown, tuning up for that thriller by finding somewhere to watch the MEAC-SWAC Challenge on ESPN.
Hopefully, somewhere in my travels this weekend, I'll be fortunate to witness one of those FCS-over-FBS wins in person.
One of the reasons I was at Kent State on Thursday night and at Lincoln Financial Field on Friday is that I thought that Towson and Villanova were prime candidates for upset wins over KSU and Temple.
Towson's swagger was tempered by six turnovers and atrocious play on special teams that negated a stalwart performance by the Tiger defense.
Similarly, Villanova gave up a pair of turnovers and was undone by both special teams troubles and big plays.
No play was bigger against Villanova than a 56-yard scoring scamper by Temple tailback Matt Brown with 21 seconds left in the first half.
"I think (Temple) broke our back with the (56-yard) run in the second quarter," said Villanova coach Andy Talley.
The Wildcats had already given up a 57-yard interception return for a score when safety Vaughn Carraway tracked down a Chris Polony pass that was thrown well over Norman White's head and taken to the house at the 11:24 mark of the second quarter.
Carraway also recovered a fumble at the VU 24 two plays later to set up quarterback Chris Coyer's 19-yard TD burst that made it 21-3 with nine minutes left in the first half.
But redshirt freshman John Robertson sparked the Wildcats on a seven-play, 69-yard drive an jaunted into the end zone from four yards out to get Villanova back in the game at 21-10 with 64 seconds remaining before intermission.
Before the had ended, Brown (19 carries, 145 yards) showed off his afterburners by pulling away from the Wildcat defense and it was right back to an 18-point deficit at 28-10.
"We really had trouble keeping up with their speed," said Talley. "I thought we could run better than that. We looked really slow on defense and I don't know why."
With FCS teams playing with 22 less scholarships than their FBS opponents, critical mistakes like turnovers, big plays and special teams screw-ups usually come back to haunt the underdogs
Still, FCS teams need to find silver lining when they fall short.
"We made a lot of mistakes," said Villanova receiver and team captain Norman White, "but we did a lot of good things, too."
One of the bright lights was the play of Robertson, who replaced Polony and rushed 15 times for 78 yards and that touchdown.
Robertson was also 9-of-17 for 135 yards passing and had an eight-yard TD toss to tight end Earnest Pettway negated with 12 seconds left by an illegal formation penalty.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose found his sense of humor, despite a humbling 20-point loss to a Kent State squad that showed why it had closed the 2011 season by winning four of its last five games to finish with a 5-7 record.
"At least nobody died," Ambrose said.
The Tigers could have lost by a much larger margin had it not been for the work of a defense that was backed up near its own end zone much of the night by the turnovers and the not-so-special special teams units.
"I'm going to be taking a long look at our special teams personnel," Ambrose said.
Derrick Joseph, considered by some an All-American candidate as a kick returner, was ready to accelerate through a big hole for what could have been a long touchdown when a diving defender, Chris Humphrey, punched the ball out of his hands in the first period — the second turnover of the game for the Tigers and a play that set up the Golden Flashes for a quick 14-0 lead.
Joseph's second miscue right before the half put Kent State in position for a 22-yard field goal before halftime that extended the lead to 27-7.
THE WEIRD PLAY OF THE WEEK
ESPN broke into its network broadcasts to show Joseph's second fumble, which nearly resulted in one of the most inglorious moments in college football history.
A bouncing punt glanced off Joseph's hand and dribbled to KSU's Andre Parker at the 16. Parker, for some unknown reason, whipped a U-turn and raced up the Towson sideline for 54 yards before being knocked out of bounds by several Tiger defenders, who didn't realize Parker was running the wrong direction towards the Towson goal line.
With visions of Wrong-Way Roy Riegels of California Rose Bowl fame and the Minnesota Vikings' Jim Marshall dancing in people's minds, Parker was spared further agony when the game officials ruled that the fumble was a muff and brought the ball back to the TU 16 before giving Kent State possession.
Even on one of the weirdest plays most fans will ever see, Towson couldn't catch a break.
The Tigers gave up 155 yards in kickoff returns to Kent State's Dri Archer (217 all-purpose yards), one for 57 yards on the opening kickoff of the game to set up a touchdown and another for 98 yards and a score to make it 24-17 just 12 seconds after Terrance West had scored for Towson.
Towson kept its composure and struck for two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes on another West scoring smash and a four-yard strike from quarterback Grant Enders to James Oboh to make the final score a bit more respectable.
Not many people would have expected Southeast Missouri State and Wagner to make serious runs at upsets against Central Michigan and Florida Atlantic.
Southeast Missouri State is coming off a 3-8 campaign and graduated record-setting QB Matt Schieble. Making matters even worse, Ohio University transfer quarterback Kyle Snyder tore an ACL in camp to leave redshirt freshman and former walk-on Scott Lathrop as the starting signal-caller.
That didn't keep the Redhawks from dominating most of the game, forging a pair of 14-point leads before running out of gas in the final 18 minutes.
Lathrop was 10-of-17 for 120 yards and a touchdown and SEMO's defense forced three CMU turnovers.
Wagner's performance against a Florida Atlantic squad that had snubbed its nose at FCS when it announced it was heading to FBS in the midst of its 2003 semifinal tournament run was even more shocking.
Wagner was playing its first-ever game against an FBS opponent and suffering from an 85-40 deficit in scholarships.
But David Lopez's 30-yard field goal at the 11:13 mark of the second period gave the Seahawks a 3-0 lead that the Wagner defense made hold up until the fourth quarter.
A 39-yard pass from backup QB Graham Wilbert to Byron Hankerson finally gave FAU a 7-3 lead with 11:39 remaining.
The Owls were trying to run out the clock with a fourth and goal situation from the one when a fumble could have made for a shocking finish in the final 20 seconds, but rather than grab the ball and run for the opposite goal line, a Seahawk player fell on the fumble and Wagner ran out of time with some desperation passes at the end.
One sure way to make sure you close out a win over an FBS club is to forge a lead and then ram the ball down your opponent's throat, like McNeese State did on Thursday.
The Cowboys rolled to a 24-6 lead in the third period as Cody Stroud passed for 139 yards and a touchdown and Marcus Wiltz smashed for 105 rushing yards on 20 carries.
Middle Tennessee State, another member of the FCS alumni club, rallied to within six points with five minutes to play, but Stroud and company made sure the Blue Raiders never got the ball back.
McNeese State methodically ran the ball down the field on its final drive to close out the game and finished the contest with a 298-103 ground advantage.
MAKING A STATEMENT?
The Big Sky took a bold stand in inviting Idaho to rejoin the league earlier this summer as the Western Athletic Conference began its final collapse like a black hole.
And on Thursday, Eastern Washington showed why the Vandals should seriously consider a move back down to FCS with a 20-3 thrashing of this old Big Sky rival.
SMU transfer quarterback Kyle Padron was just 13-of-33, but he threw for 260 yards and one touchdown to scorch the Idaho defense.
Brandon Kaufman, the MVP of EWU's 2011 national championship run, showed he is ready to reclaim his perch as one of the top receivers in FCS, making five acrobatic catches for 148 yards to spark the Eagles' attack.
Eastern Washington's defense held Idaho to a field goal on an early drive and then didn't allow the Vandals to score again. It was 10-3 at halftime and the Eagles closed things out with 10 more points in the second half.