It had been 29 years since the Towson football team enjoyed a postseason win, until Saturday.
That made the No. 7 seed Tigers’ 48-28 victory over visiting Fordham Saturday in an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision tournament second-round game before an announced 4,671 at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson well worth the wait.
With the win, Towson (11-2) set a single-season record for victories and moved to the quarterfinal round for the first time in school history. The team will meet No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois (12-1), which walloped Tennessee State (10-4), 51-10, on Saturday.
The quarterfinal game will be played Friday at 8 p.m. at O'Brien Field in Charleston, Ill., and it will be televised on ESPN2.
The Tigers kept their playoffs hopes alive courtesy of a revived passing offense under senior Peter Athens. Despite the absence of starting wide receiver Spencer Wilkins (Mount Hebron) and Leon Kinnard (Loyola), the quarterback threw for 301 yards and a single game-high three touchdowns.
“Week in and week out, we play defenses that stack the box, and we set a game plan around that,” said Athens, who completed 86.7 percent (13-of-15) of his passes. “[Offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose] has really put in a big game plan that helps us out with that.”
Without Wilkins and Kinnard, Athens spread the wealth through the air, connecting with eight different receivers. Freshman Andre Dessenberg led the team with three catches for 94 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter, but Athens excelled at finding targets in the Rams’ zone defense.
Not to be outdone, junior running back Terrance West (Northwestern) added three touchdowns and 76 yards on 24 carries and freshman Darius Victor gained 105 yards and score one touchdown on 12 attempts. They took advantage of a Fordham unit that entered the contest surrendering an average of 203.5 yards, and Towson scored seven touchdowns on its first eight possessions en route to posting the most points by a Rams opponent.
“It felt great to finally have a chance to play in the postseason,” said Victor, who last week was name
Offensive Rookie of the Year in the Colonial Athletic Association. “I just wanted to make my team proud and not have a letdown when Terrance is out. So I tried to contribute any way possible.”
The Tigers sprinted to a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, scoring touchdowns on their first three series. But that’s when they allowed Fordham to get back into the game via a pair of special teams gaffes.
With Rams freshman punter Joe Pavlik kicking from his own end zone on fourth-and-14 at the 7, junior Brian Dowling returned the punt 46 yards to the 3. But offsetting penalties forced a re-punt, and on the next play, sophomore Navassa Brown drilled Pavlik while attempting to block the kick, incurring a roughing the punter penalty and giving Fordham a fresh set of downs.
Rams junior quarterback Michael Nebrich took advantage, finding junior wide receiver Sam Ajala for a 23-yard touchdown with 6:32 left in the second quarter.
On Fordham’s next series, Pavlik punted on fourth-and-25 from the 4, but Dowling muffed the fair catch, and junior strong safety Jake Dixon pounced on the loose ball at Towson’s 47. On fourth-and-13 from the 37, Ajala used a double move to freeze junior cornerback Tye Smith and catch a strike from Nebrich for the touchdown to knot the score at 21 with 41 seconds left before halftime.
The Tigers made it 3-for-3 on special teams mistakes when junior Thomas Bradley turned his back prematurely on the ensuing kickoff and Cameron Starke bounced a squib kick off his back. Junior Marco Fragnito recovered the ball at the Rams’ 47, and the offense moved to Towson’s 24 on four plays before junior kicker Michael Marando’s 41-yard field-goal attempt went wide left as time expired in the first half.
The Tigers regained their rhythm in the third quarter with two touchdowns, and the defense shut out the opponent in that frame for the 10th time this season to cruise to the victory.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose said the special teams errors did not cripple the Tigers.
“I say this time and time again: it is not a one-quarter game, a one-play game,” he said. “It’s 60 minutes. We went into halftime, talked about what happened and what didn’t happen, wiped away the first half basically, and said we were just going to play ball for 30 minutes and get back to what we do. The team you saw in the third quarter was the team you saw in the first quarter.”
Nebrich connected on 37-of-50 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns, mostly completing passes to a pair of 100-yard receivers in junior tight end Dan Light (13 catches for 122 yards) and Ajala (eight receptions for 120 yards and two touchdowns), but coach Joe Moorhead said the Rams could not contain Towson’s offense.
“They have a lot of weapons, they’re very deep,” Moorhead said. “Coach Ambrose’s staff does an excellent job of putting their guys in a position to be successful. We knew the margin of error was going to be small, and we didn’t do enough to overcome it.”