By DAN O'CONNELL
With the Tiger football team preparing to make one of its longest road trips ever, I've been thinking back to my first road trip with the Tiger football squad, a trip that was just about 30 years ago.
It's hard for me to believe but it's been 30 years since I joined the football team for the trip to Maine for a game against the Black Bears.
Back in 1979, the Tiger football program was only in its 11th season of intercollegiate competition. After ten seasons of competing at the NCAA Division III level, Towson was making a very bold move in 1979. The Tigers were competing in their first season as a Division II team and the trip to Maine was their second game.
In 1979, Tiger football fans were accustomed to winning. Coach Phil Albert and his staff had spoiled us. In fact, Towson hadn't had a losing season since 1972, the first season that "Coach A" was the head coach.
One week before the trip to Maine, the Tigers hosted Morgan State in a much-anticipated season opener. At the time, Morgan State was a small college powerhouse and the Tigers were the new kids on the block. Before a record crowd at Towson Stadium (as it was known in those days), the Tigers grabbed an early 7-0 lead over Morgan. But after that, it was all Morgan State as the Bears rolled to a 34-7 win over Towson.
It was a disappointing loss for sure. But nobody realized how good Morgan was that year. The Bears went on to post a 9-1 record and earn an NCAA playoff berth.
When the Tigers traveled to Maine, they were facing an NCAA Division I-AA opponent for the first time ever. Although nobody talked about it, an 0-2 start to the season seemed likely.
Once we arrived at Bangor Airport, the ridicule started. It seemed like nobody in the entire state had ever heard of "Townsend State." In fact, we came to learn that there weren't too many people in the Pine Tree State who had ever heard of the State of Maryland.
The local newspaper provided some interesting reading. The sports staff at The Bangor Daily News made weekly predictions of college football games. The six writers on the newspaper staff were unanimous in expecting Maine to roll to an easy win. The scores ranged from 56-0 to 31-3. One writer, who felt he was being kind, predicted a 24-0 win for the home team.
By the time kickoff arrived on Saturday afternoon, the name of our school was misspelled and mispronounced dozens of times.
When we arrived at Alumni Field on Saturday morning, I was surprised to see that it was a rather small facility. In fact, the press box was an open-air area that was exposed to the weather. We were very grateful that the game was being played in early September rather than mid-November.
When the teams came out to warm up, it was a reality check for those of us pulling for Towson. It was immediately apparent that Maine was a much bigger team. In fact, it almost looked like we were a junior varsity team and Maine was the varsity.
Although Maine had not won too many games in recent years, the Black Bears were coached by Jack Bicknell. It's doubtful that anyone in our travel party would have predicted that within five years, Bicknell would be coaching Doug Flutie and Boston College to national prominence.
But a strange thing happened once the game started. The Black Bears were having a very difficult time dealing with the Tigers' quickness. On the opening drive, quarterback Ron Meehan marched Towson to Maine's 20-yard line. However, the drive came to an end when the Black Bears intercepted a pass.
The rest of the first quarter was a duel between the two punters and the game was scoreless entering the second period.
Midway through the second quarter, Meehan led another Tiger drive as he hooked up with Ken Snoots time and time again. On back-to-back plays, he completed a 17-yard pass to Snoots and a 16-yard toss, moving Towson to the Maine 41-yard line. When Meehan completed a 12-yard pass to freshman tight end Hernando Mejia, the Tigers had reached the Black Bears' 19-yard line. After a six-yard pass to Snoots gave the Tigers a first down at the nine-yard line, John Henry Clayton ran for seven yards to the two-yard line. Facing third-and-goal at the two, Meehan tried a quarterback sneak and was stopped short of the goal line. Rather than try a short field goal, "Coach A" went for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal. Meehan tried to score on another quarterback sneak and made it into the end zone for the touchdown. When Randy Bielski converted the extra point, Towson had a 7-0 lead with 1:16 remaining in the second quarter.
The Black Bears moved the ball into Towson territory on their final possession of the first half. But the Tiger defense stiffened at the Towson 47-yard line and forced Maine to punt for the fifth time in the first half. Moments later, the first half ended with a crowd of 6,400 people sitting in stunned silence.
Truthfully, the Black Bears should have been grateful that they were only trailing by 7-0. The Tigers had dominated the first half, rolling up 192 yards of offense to 102 yards by Maine. If not for the interception in the first quarter, Towson may have owned a two-touchdown lead.
Meehan and Snoots created serious matchup problems for the Black Bears' defense. In the first half, Meehan completed 14 of 22 passes for 151 yards. At halftime, Snoots had ten receptions for 127 yards. He had already set the Towson record for pass receptions in a game.
On the opening drive of the second half, Maine started to move the ball on the ground. Running back Mike Edelstein carried the ball on the first four plays of the third quarter as Maine moved to midfield. However, linebacker Bryan Brouse intercepted a pass by quarterback Jack Tursky and returned it to the Maine 42-yard line.
After the Tiger offense stalled, a punt by freshman Sean Landeta was downed at the Black Bears' 15-yard line. Then, to the relief of everyone in the crowd, the Black Bears put together their best drive of the game. After being sacked by Vince Iorio at the Towson 39-yard line, Tursky converted a 3rd-and-16 situation by throwing an 18-yard pass to Dave Lapham, moving the ball to the Towson 21-yard line. Once inside the Tigers' ten-yard line, the Black Bears had trouble moving the ball. Faced with a 4th-and-goal from the eight-yard line, it was Coach Bicknell's turn to gamble. He went for the touchdown and the gamble paid off when Tursky found Pat Madden open in the right corner of the end zone. His eight-yard TD pass to Madden tied the game at 7-7 with 4:24 left in the third quarter as Maine marched 85 yards in 15 plays.
While most of the Black Bear faithful breathed a collective sigh of relief, the Tiger offense went back to work.
Early in the fourth quarter, freshman tailback Ray Walsh entered the game and provided a spark to the Towson offense. He led the way on a Tiger scoring drive that put Towson ahead, 13-7, with 10:17 remaining. On the first two plays of the drive, he ran for 13 yards and 23 yards. When he ran for five yards off right tackle, his first career touchdown gave Towson a 13-7 lead. The Tigers' momentum was halted briefly when the conversion attempt failed.
Trailing by 13-7, the Black Bears' offense took the field with a renewed sense of urgency. After moving into Towson territory, a drive was halted when defensive tackle John Haywood sacked Tursky on fourth down. In the final minute of the game, Bielski thwarted Maine's final possession when he intercepted a pass and returned it to the Black Bears' two-yard line as the clock expired.
The Tiger defense turned in an outstanding effort in the Tigers' shocking win. Brouse led the defense with 11 tackles and an interception while Bielski made six tackles and intercepted a pass. Linebacker Jeff Boller recorded ten tackles while Iorio had seven tackles, including a sack.
The Towson defense posted five sacks and forced two turnovers while holding the Black Bears to 145 yards rushing and 256 yards of offense.
Now a member of the Towson Athletic Hall of Fame, Meehan enjoyed one of the best games of his outstanding career, completing 19 of 29 passes for 202 yards.
As the Tiger travel party dressed quickly and headed for the airport, I was shocked that everyone wasn't more excited to win. In my mind, this was a huge upset and should be celebrated wildly.
Sitting in the airport waiting to board our flight back to Baltimore, I struck up a conversation with Defensive Coordinator Gordy Combs. I mentioned to him how surprised I was that we won the game. He looked at me and said, "There was never a doubt in my mind that we could shut them down the way we did. We expected to win so we're not really that surprised. I knew they would have trouble with our quickness."
He added, "Honestly, we should have won this game by more than six points. If you look at the stats, this was not a fluke. We were the better team today."
Despite his heroic effort at Maine, even the most dedicated Tiger football fan would be hard-pressed to remember Ray Walsh. A native of West Islip, N.Y., Walsh ran for 68 yards on nine carries at Maine and was named as the ECAC Division II Rookie of the Week.
As it turned out, the win at Maine was the highlight of Walsh's college career. He struggled with injuries the rest of the season and finished the year as Towson's second-leading rusher with 372 yards on 69 carries and two touchdowns. After his freshman year, he returned home to Long Island and didn't return to school.
One of my fondest memories of the win over Maine occurred the next day. While sitting in my living room watching the Orioles beat the Red Sox in Fenway Park (yes, the Orioles used to be good and they actually reached the World Series in 1979). I heard Chuck Thompson and Bill O'Donnell, the Oriole announcers, start talking about Towson's win over Maine the previous day. As I recall, O'Donnell remarked that "New England is abuzz about Towson's huge win over Maine yesterday. What a great win for Coach Phil Albert and the Tigers."
The rest of the 1979 season reflected the Tigers' confidence and proved that the win over Maine wasn't a fluke. The victory over Maine was the start of a nine-game winning streak that enabled Towson to finish its first Division II season with a 9-1 record. Along the way, the Tigers beat James Madison, Guilford, Wayne State, Ashland and C.W. Post.
When the season came to an end, Towson barely missed out on earning a berth in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
As Coach Combs expected, the 1979 Tigers had an outstanding defense. After giving up 34 points to Morgan State in the season opener, the Tigers gave up only 64 points in the last nine games, a 7.1 average. No team scored more than 15 points against the Tigers in the last nine games and Towson posted a pair of shutout wins over Wayne State and Randolph-Macon.
Bielski had an outstanding senior season, earning All-American notice. In addition to making 85 tackles, he intercepted six passes and recovered four fumbles. He also did a great job as the Tigers' place kicker by scoring 37 points.
For the Tiger football program, the 1979 season was the start of a memorable eight-year run in NCAA Division II football. From 1979 to 1986, the Tigers posted a record of 60-28-2 and made three NCAA playoff appearances. They won three Lambert/Meadowlands Awards as the top team in the East and finished as a Top 10 team four years in a row.
The win over Maine was Towson's first victory over an NCAA I-AA opponent and it helped the Tigers develop a reputation as a Division II team that was very capable of upsetting a I-AA program. In the coming seasons, Towson posted upset wins over established I-AA teams like Bucknell, Delaware, Delaware State, Maine (again) and Lafayette.
But the 1979 win over Maine will always be a special victory for me.