BALTIMORE, Md. - Ever since he became the Towson University head coach eight months ago, Towson Coach Rob Ambrose has been preaching the importance of finishing to his players. He has told his team they have to finish everything they start.
In their 22nd meeting with Morgan State on Saturday, the Tigers were reminded how important it is to finish. They failed to finish some solid scoring chances and the result was a disappointing 12-9 to their crosstown rivals at a soggy Hughes Stadium.
While raising its record to 2-1 on the season, Morgan State beat Towson for the first time since the 2003 season. The loss dropped Towson's record to 1-2 on the year and snapped its four-game winning streak over the Bears.
"We left a lot of plays out there," admitted Coach Ambrose. "But we have to give Morgan credit. They played very well and made fewer mistakes than we did and they got the win. We had moments where we showed some greatness but there just wasn't enough consistency."
Remarkably, the Tigers had 344 yards of total offense while holding Morgan to 161 total yards. Towson had 14 first downs while Morgan had six first downs. The Tigers ran for 196 yards while the defense held the Bears to 33 yards rushing.
But turnovers and penalties spelled the Tigers' doom.
"It really wasn't the number of penalties we had," said Ambrose. "It was the timing of them. It seemed like they always negated a big play."
In fact, Towson penalties negated a 38-yard kickoff return by Hakeem Moore, a 25-yard punt return by Dave Newsom and a pair of long runs by freshman quarterback Peter Athens. In the third quarter, Athens scrambled for 14 yards to give Towson a first down at the Morgan six-yard line. However, a holding penalty negated the run and pushed the ball back to the 30-yard line, costing the Tigers a chance for a go-ahead touchdown.
With the weather conditions worsening, the Tigers turned the ball over three times in the fourth quarter. Towson had moved to the Morgan 35-yard line with less than five minutes to play. But junior defensive back Darren McKhan ended the threat by intercepting a pass.
The Bears owned a 12-6 lead at halftime. Despite being held to 45 yards of total offense and one first down in the second half, Morgan held on to win.
Ambrose admitted, "The rain hurt us because we were behind. We couldn't throw the ball very well and I saw our guys drop passes that they never drop in practice."
Early in the first quarter, the Tigers took a 6-0 lead on under an unusual set of circumstances. On a second down play at the Towson 46-yard line, Athens threw deep to Newsom who caught the ball at the six-yard line and ran to the end zone. He fumbled at the one-yard line and the ball went into the end zone where tight end Tony Zaccarelli recovered for the touchdown and a 6-0 lead with 9:06 left in the first quarter.
However, James Cole blocked Jon Boyer's conversion attempt. McKhan picked up the ball and returned the blocked kick 100 yards for a two-point conversion, cutting the deficit to 6-2.
"That two-point conversion return was a big play in the game," said Ambrose. "We had just scored and we had the momentum. Then, everything changed and they had the momentum."
The Tiger defense did a great job shutting down Morgan State's offense through the first quarter. In fact, the Bears were held to no first downs and 22 yards of offense in the opening period.
In the second quarter, the Bears mounted their only sustained drive of the game and it put them ahead. Converting a pair of third down opportunities, Morgan State marched from its own 11-yard and reached the Towson 26-yard line. Facing a fourth down-and-one at the Towson 26, the Bears gambled and it paid off. With the short-yardage offense in the game, senior quarterback Carlton Jackson faked a handoff and rolled out to his left. He fired a short pass to sophomore Lamont Bryant in the flat and he ran down the sideline for a 26-yard touchdown. When Kemar Scarlett kicked the extra point, the Bears owned a 9-6 lead with 9:53 remaining in the first half.
On their ensuing possession, the Tigers faced fourth down-and-one at their own 31-yard line. Hoping to change the momentum, they tried a fake punt. However, the Bears were ready for it and Tommy Chroniger was thrown for a loss by Jody Ellis.
"The first down was there for us," said Coach Ambrose. "We had the right play called and Tommy was in the right spot. That could have been a huge gain for us but somebody missed a block."
Although the Bears had excellent field position at the Towson 30-yard line, they couldn't move the ball. On fourth down, Scarlett kicked a 41-yard field goal to put the Bears up by 12-6 with 6:02 remaining in the first half.
Sparked by a 35-yard run by Tremayne Dameron, the Tigers responded with an impressive drive of their own. Backed up at their own 10-yard line by a penalty on the kickoff, the Tigers proceeded to move the ball. After reaching the Bears' 25-yard line, the Morgan defense stiffened. On fourth down at the 22-yard line, Athens tried to throw a touchdown pass to Casey Cegles by Gary Albury broke up the play.
At the start of the third quarter, the Tigers received a break when a bad snap on a punt forced Nicholas Adams to throw a four-yard pass to George Howard. Howard was short of the first down and the Tigers received great field position at the Morgan 34-yard line.
After Athens ran for a first down at the Morgan 20-yard line, he scrambled for 14 yards to the six. However, the run was negated by a holding penalty. Three plays later, Boyer kicked a 35-yard field goal and the Tigers had trimmed their deficit to 12-9.
On their next possession, Newsom had his 25-yard punt return wiped out by a holding penalty and the Tigers went "three-and-out."
Late in the third quarter, the Tigers received another break when Bryan Mann fumbled a punt at the Morgan 41-yard line and Donte Blakey recovered for Towson. After moving to the Morgan 33-yard line, the Tigers were stopped on fourth down-and-two and that opportunity was wasted.
In the fourth quarter, Athens threw a 27-yard pass to freshman Alex Blake, who reached the Towson 37-yard line. But, he fumbled and Ellis recovered for the Bears.
After the Bears were stopped, Adams came in to punt and he placed his punt inside the five-yard line where it was downed at the Towson one-yard line.
Starting at their own one-yard line with 9:42 remaining, the Tigers moved the ball out to their own 32-yard line. Bill Shears came in to punt and he was hit after he kicked, resulting in a penalty. That gave Towson another first down at its own 38-yard line.
After Athens picked up 20 yards on a quarterback draw, the Tigers had a first down at the Morgan 42-yard line. But, McKahn's interception at the 34-yard line ended the drive.
With 1:57 left, the Tigers had one final chance when they got the ball at their own ten-yard line. But, Ellis intercepted a tipped pass at the Towson 28-yard line and the Bears were able to run out the clock.
"This game was a good learning experience for our team," said Coach Ambrose. "But it was a painful one. Our preparation wasn't as a good as it should have been and I'll take the blame for that. As a coach, you'd be very happy if your players could learn without being hurt. But, that doesn't happen very often."
Defensively, the Tigers turned in an outstanding effort as they held Morgan to 33 yards on 33 carries. Devan James, who ran for 178 yards on 33 carries against Towson last season, was held to only 29 yards on 15 attempts.
Led by junior tackle Yaky Ibia, the Tigers made eight tackles for lost yardage in the game. Ibia made seven tackles, including 2.5 tackles for lost yardage and had one quarterback hit. Senior defensive end Brady Smith added four tackles while senior linebacker Alex Butt made six tackles, including a sack.
Linebacker Danzel White, a "red shirt" freshman, led the Tiger defense with 12 tackles.
Dameron led the Tigers' running game by rushing for a career high 126 yards on 28 carries. Athens ran for 53 yards on seven carries while freshman Dominque Booker picked up 13 yards on five carries.
Athens completed 11 of 23 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown. But he was intercepted twice.
Newsom led the Tigers with four catches for 90 yards while Dameron caught three passes for nine yards. Newsom, who had six punt returns for 46 yards, picked up 141 yards.
TIGER TIDBITS: The Tigers played without senior tight end John Godlasky, who had started 25 consecutive games ... He was sidelined by appendicitis, an attack he suffered on Tuesday night ... The Tigers also played without sophomore cornerback Nick Oates, who suffered an injury in practice this week ... Junior Hakeem Moore saw his first action of the season after missing the first two games with a broken hand.
Despite the 12-9 loss to Morgan State, Towson leads the all-time series by a 16-6 margin ... It marked the sixth time in eight meetings that the Towson-Morgan game was decided by less than seven points.
Dameron's 126 rushing yards were the most by a Tiger back since Nick Williams ran for 139 yards at William & Mary on September 29, 2007 ... The Tigers outrushed Morgan by a 196-33, marking the second straight game the Tigers have outrushed their opponents.
By holding Morgan to 33 rushing yards, the Tigers turned in their best defensive effort against the run since they held Lock Haven to 13 yards in a 70-0 victory on September 10, 2005.
The Tigers open Colonial Athletic Association play against New Hampshire next Saturday at Johnny Unitas® Stadium.