The fall air was crisp and chilly as Towson football players practiced at Johnny Unitas Stadium earlier this week. Watching them play, it appeared as though their recent losses to LSU and James Madison were already out of their minds. In the brisk weather that was perfect for football, the athletes seemed to exude confidence and energy.
"The confidence is coming from the defensive side of the ball," coach Rob Ambrose said. "There's a lot of older guys with a lot of experience, and they're feeding off each other right now."
The Tigers (2-3, 1-1 Colonial Athletic Association), ranked No. 17 in the Football Championship Subdivision, have cut their points allowed from 34.5 points per game in 2010 to 26 last year and 25.2 this season. The yardage allowed per game has dropped from 357.1 in 2010 to 282 this year.
"I saw improvement and I saw us getting better from the previous year, last year, but I think we're making greater strides faster against some really impressive competition this year," Ambrose said.
The Tigers held LSU, now 5-1 and No. 9 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, to seven points midway through the second quarter before falling, 38-22, on the road on Sept. 29. Last Saturday, they held James Madison, now 4-1 and No. 5 in the FCS, to six points until allowing a touchdown in the final 1:24 in a 13-10 loss.
Of course, there's still work to be done.
"We have room for improvement in every area: pass rush, coverage, everything," senior defensive end Frank Beltre said.
Beltre expects the defensive line to come out "hungry, mad and ready to beat Maine" this Saturday at home.
"[We plan to] shut down their pass and their running game, and hurt them when they even think they can pass, hurt them so bad they're thinking they can run hurts them," he said.
It won't be easy with the Black Bears (2-3, 1-1) coming off a 26-3 win at Delaware and holding a 2-1 road record, but Ambrose is confident the unit has the mindset to get the job done.
"Defensively you need to play with energy, hustle, discipline and physicality, and offensive guys kind of have to think a little more," he said. "Right now they're doing that, and they're having fun doing that.
They're having fun playing defense ... If you're going to win championships, you got to play good defense, and we're moving in that direction."
Beltre says the one of the biggest differences between the defensive line from his first year as a Tiger and this year's version is the players' ability to enjoy the game — and translate that into on-field success.
"Our coach made these little wristbands that spells out "livvn," L-I-V-V-N, which means that's what we do when we're out there," Beltre said. "We're not doing a job because we have to, we're doing it because we love it, we do it for the guy next to us ... When you're having fun out there, running around, hitting somebody as hard as you can, doing your assignment, that's living, and that's the thing that's changed [about the defense], because we learned to have fun."