Thank you Tigers
I usually don’t subscribe to moral victories when it comes to sports.
There are no moral victories on the playing field. That’s why they keep score after all.
That said, the 40-38 defeat of my alma mater, The Towson University, at the hands of Lehigh in the second round of the FCS playoffs is different.
As the Tiger players slowly made their way to the locker room, dazed by how abruptly and sudden their meteoric rise of a season came to an end, with a 4th quarter safety being the deciding margin, all I could do was stand and applaud. This team deserved that much.
What I saw Saturday was a program that was, in the words of Double Down Trent, “all growns up.” For years, all us alumni had wanted was a program we could be proud of. That won on the field, won in the classroom and had a passionate student fanbase behind it.
It was all there Saturday. The lots were filled with tailgaters. Young students were decked out in black and gold, waving huge Towson flags in the air. Kids swayed and played along as the band put its own variation on the “SportsCenter” theme.
That wasn’t there when I was at the school 10 years ago. You were lucky if the place then-known as Minnegan Stadium was even half-full. Most of the students would go home on the weekend. Minnegan Stadium itself used to look like a glorified high school field. The team was usually somewhere around mediocre.
The only thing remaining at what is now known as Johnny Unitas Stadium from when I went there is the track that circles the field. The place was packed with 11,000 people, a sell-out, for the Lehigh game.
Potential recruits got to see first-hand what Towson is all about. Unitas Stadium is a beautiful facility, with a new field house/locker room and first-class video board.
The campus itself is much nicer, with more residential facilities and improved academic facilities. And we got Tiger Arena on the way for the hoops team. Everything I ever wanted to see from TU was on display Saturday night and I couldn’t be more proud to finally see it.
One of the benefits of Facebook is that it allows you to connect with people you haven’t seen or heard from in years. Granted, that can be a good or bad thing. In this case, Facebook allowed me to reconnect with my old roommate Mike Gambuto who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. The game was not only a chance to catch up on old times, but to finally see our school play a big football game. Neither one of us wanted to miss this one.
We certainly got our $20 worth with the game, a back-and-forth shootout all the way. The Tigers go off to a shaky start, trying to fake a punt in their own territory on fourth down, getting stopped one yard short. This was the first of two head-scratching moves the Tigers would make.
Lehigh, backed by a raucous group of supporters bussed in for the game, looked unstoppable on offense early. The TU offense went with a power running game to keep pace, which came in handy because quarterback Grant Enders was very inaccurate on his passes in the first half.
All game long, Lehigh burned the Tigers with receiver Ryan Spadola, or as me and Mike called him “#8.” Against the Tigers, Spadola was an unholy combination of Dallas Clark, Wes Welker and Mike Wallace, burning the Tigers short, over the middle, deep and on third down.
While the Tigers were able to bludgeon the Mountain Hawks with their running game, Lehigh pulled out all the stops. As Mike said during the game, “They’re not leaving any clubs in the bag.”
Example: With the game tied at 10, Lehigh had a fourth-and-1 at the Tigers 23-yard line. Lehigh’s Matt Fitz took a handoff, ran up to the line like a dive play, stopped and passed to a wide-open Jamel Haggins. It was a play so well designed I don’t know how you stop it.
To their credit, the Tigers kept fighting and just before the half, Enders found Leon Kinnard on a perfectly executed bootleg pass to tie it up at the half.
Lehigh fumbled on its first possession of the second half, and the Tigers took advantage, with touchdown machine Terrance West punching it in from 1-yard out to give the Tigers their first lead. West, who scored an FCS-high 29 touchdowns this year, is only a freshman and is a big reason to be excited for the Tigers future. He’s almost automatic on the goalline and on third-and-short.
The two teams spent nearly the rest of the game exchanging scores. After every Lehigh touchdown I would tell Mike, “It’s our turn.” Early in the fourth quarter, Enders threw his best pass of the day, a lovely 52-yard bomb to Gerard Sheppard.
But Lehigh came right back and tied it up again. The Tigers would get the ball at their nine-yard line, leading to the second questionable decision of the day. The Tigers called for a bootleg pass, similar to what they had done on the Kinnard touchdown earlier in the game. Only this time, the Lehigh defensive end wasn’t fooled and sacked Enders in the end zone for a safety with just under six minutes to go, giving Lehigh a 40-38 lead. The question I asked then and still ask today: why did the Tigers call that play backed up against their own goal line?
That said the Tigers still had a chance to get the ball back. But, as was the case all game long really, the defense couldn’t get off the field on third down. In a game where they made gutsy calls all day, Lehigh made one more to seal it. Facing fourth-and-short, and with the Tigers out of timeouts, Lehigh decided to go for it instead of kicking a field goal for a five-point lead. One fullback flare pass later, and Lehigh and their fans were celebrating and the Towson players walked to the locker room like extras in a George Romero film.
Despite the sad ending, it was a hell of a ride for Towson this year. No longer are the Tigers the doormats of the CAA. Towson will return this core of players next year almost in tact. West will be a sophomore, Enders a junior, the skill position players will all be back.
Towson has been rumored to be in the running for some of the players that have escaped Randy Edsall’s prison complex in College Park. While Maryland stunk this year under Edsall, the same players had gone 9-4 the year before. The door is open for TU to put a dent in UMD’s stranglehold on college sports in the state of Maryland.
Certainly some areas need improvement. The Tigers need to get more pass rush and more speed at linebacker. Lehigh’s backs and tight ends exploited the Tigers’ inability to cover them all game long.
Finally, we as Tiger fans need to get a little better. We didn’t always bring it against Lehigh. It was a crowd unsure of how to react to big games, if for no other reason than the Tigers haven’t been in very many. We need to make Unitas Stadium into a true homefield advantage, just like M&T Bank Stadium is for the Ravens.
To finish, I wanted to leave with this message that Coach Rob Ambrose left on his Facebook page.
“Dear Towson University Students, Alums, Parents, Staff and Fans:
Thank you for your amazing and inspired support of our student athletes this fall. In a very short period of time- the players, staff and supporters of your football team have changed not only the perception of Towson University nationally, but more importantly how everyone involved sees themselves and their prideful roll in our University Community. You, personally and collectively, have made the difference. Teams grow and evolve based on the investiture of it's members and the Towson Team has grown by the thousands this fall in a way that can only be described as awe-inspiring. As your football coach, and an alum.....with all that I am...Thank You. We are truly One Towson.”
No, thank you, Coach.