By Dan O'Connell, Associate Director Athletic Media Relations
Over the last 33 years, the Tigers have made ten trips to Harrisonburg, Virginia to play James Madison University. Most of the time, the journey has not been a rewarding one.
However, their visit to Bridgeforth Stadium in 1983 was a very memorable trip.
In the final game of the 1983 season, the stakes were very high for the Tigers. Coach Phil Albert had guided Towson to a 9-1 record which included a 13-4 victory at Delaware and a 23-15 win over Delaware State.
The Tigers went into their regular season finale as the fourth-ranked team in NCAA Division II. Towson owned the best defense in Division II, allowing 61 points in ten games. In their first ten games, the Tiger defense forced 51 turnovers, an incredibly high total.
While the Tigers entered the game with everything to lose, they were facing an injury-plagued James Madison squad. The Dukes, who were already playing at the NCAA Division I-AA level in 1983, were closing out a disappointing 3-7 campaign.
"We knew that playing Madison in that situation would be very difficult for us," recalled Coach Albert. "They had a lot of injuries but they were starting to get healthy. They had nothing to lose and beating us in that spot would have given them a lot of satisfaction. They were a much better team than their record showed."
Before a crowd of nearly 6,000 on a sunny afternoon in Harrisonburg, the Tigers won the opening coin toss. After the Tigers started their first possession at their 23-yard line, senior quarterback Bret Rogers went to work.
On third down-and-12, Rogers completed a pass to senior Brian O'Neal, who picked up a first down at the Towson 33-yard line. A 20-yard completion to sophomore Sean Murphy moved the Tigers to the Dukes' 47-yard line. Facing third down-and-ten, Rogers threw a 39-yard pass to O'Neal coming out of the backfield.
O'Neal's reception gave Towson a first down at the Dukes' eight-yard line. After Murphy was tackled for a seven-yard loss back to the 12-yard line, the Tigers faced a third-and-goal.
Once again, Rogers found O'Neal open coming out of the backfield and completed a 12-yard TD pass. When Jerome Nolan made the conversion kick, the Tigers owned a 7-0 lead with 11:23 remaining in the first quarter.
On their first possession, the Tigers marched 77 yards in ten plays as O'Neal caught three passes for 63 yards and a TD.
With the Tigers taking a quick 7-0 lead, many of the Towson fans in the crowd celebrated the touchdown while breathing a collective sigh of relief.
The rest of the game was much different however. Over the next three hours, the Tiger fans watched a defensive struggle in which momentum went back and forth. It was an afternoon filled with edge-of-your-seat excitement and plenty of drama.
As it turned out, the Tigers' early touchdown was their only TD of the game.
With 5:19 remaining in the first quarter, the Dukes had great field position when Mike Jones intercepted a Rogers pass at the Towson 41-yard line. But the Towson defense came through and forced the Dukes to punt for the third straight possession.
After moving the ball out to their 44-yard line, the Tigers were forced to punt. Nolan hit a great punt which Gary Clark fumbled and recovered at the Dukes' 10-yard line. Facing third-and-seven from the 13-yard line, quarterback Gus Miller was sacked by Tiger linebacker Bobby Poist at the three-yard line, forcing Mickey Stinnett to punt from deep in his own end zone.
Under heavy pressure, Stinnett hit a low punt that Mark Kauffman caught at the Dukes' 41-yard line. Kauffman returned the punt 23 yards to set up another great scoring opportunity.
After O'Neal ran for a first down at the Dukes' eight-yard line, Brian Kirchoff ran to the five-yard line where the Tigers had a second-and-goal. However, an illegal procedure penalty moved the Tigers back five yards. When Rogers was sacked at the 14, Nolan came in to try a 31-yard field goal. When he made the field goal, the Tigers owned a 10-0 lead with 9:28 remaining in the first half.
On their fifth possession of the half, the Dukes finally got a first down when Todd Bowles completed a 28-yard pass to Clark, the Dukes' record-setting wide receiver. After Bowles threw a five-yard pass to Brian Coe at the Towson 46-yard line, the Dukes made a huge mistake. JMU was penalized for two personal fouls on the play. After the penalties were assessed, James Madison had a 2nd-and-35 at its 24-yard line. When Poist sacked Bowles for the second time, JMU was backed up at its 16-yard line facing a fourth-and-43. Stinnett's 45-yard punt was returned by Kauffman to the Towson 37-yard line.
After Rogers completed a 15-yard pass to Mike Lewns and an 11-yard pass to O'Neal, the Tigers found themselves at the Dukes' 37. On the next play, O'Neal ran to the Dukes' 30 where he fumbled. Bill Brightwell recovered for the Dukes and the drive was stopped by Towson's second turnover of the game.
With 1:29 remaining in the half, Bowles completed a 21-yard pass to Victor Job, moving the Dukes to the Towson 36-yard line. Moments later, the Tiger defense came up with another big play as senior linebacker Jeff Kihn intercepted Bowles' pass with 1:11 left in the half.
Although the Tigers owned a 10-0 lead at halftime, there was a sense of uneasiness among the Towson faithful. The Tiger defense had dominated the first half, holding JMU to 63 yards of offense and just three first downs. JMU was also forced to punt six times.
Despite several good scoring chances, the Tigers kept hurting themselves. Towson turned the ball over twice and Rogers was sacked four times.
JMU started the second half with a 39-yard kickoff return by Robert Turner, giving the Dukes great field position. After a ten-yard pass to Clark, the Dukes were in Tiger territory for the third time. However, Poist's third sack of the game forced the Dukes to punt again.
On their first possession of the second half, the Tigers were unable to move the ball. When Nolan punted, the Dukes took over at their own 37-yard line.
On first down, JMU tried a gadget play and it worked. Coe took the handoff and completed a 32-yard pass to Dan Robertson, setting the Dukes up at the Towson 31-yard line. After reaching the 24 on two running plays, the Dukes elected to try a field goal. When Stinnett nailed a 41-yard field goal, JMU had cut its deficit to 10-3.
With their lead trimmed to 10-3, the Tiger offense played with a sense of urgency. A 19-yard pass to Lewns moved Towson to midfield. Another pass to Lewns enabled the Tigers to reach the Dukes' 21-yard line.
Then, mistakes by the Tigers halted the drive. The Tigers were penalized for holding on back-to-back plays, moving them back to the 35-yard line. When Rogers was sacked again, Towson had a 2nd-and-31. A 17-yard pass from Rogers to Murphy moved the Tigers into field goal range at the Dukes' 26-yard line. However, Nolan missed his 43-yard attempt and the Tigers had squandered another scoring opportunity.
Once again, the Tiger defense came through, forcing another punt. With 1:58 left in the third quarter, Towson had a first down at its own 30-yard line. After moving out to near midfield, the Tiger offense stalled. On third down, Rogers was sacked for an eight-yard loss back to the Tigers' 35-yard line. Nolan's 41-yard punt pushed the Dukes back to their own 24-yard line. However, Towson was called for another costly penalty and the personal foul call gave JMU the ball at its own 39-yard line.
With 14:21 left in the game, the Dukes still hadn't solved the Tiger defense. A sack by Allen Argent on third down caused Stinnett to punt for the ninth time. His 49-yard kick pushed the Tigers back to their own 12-yard line.
Hoping to sustain a long, time-consuming drive, the Tigers picked up three first downs to reach their own 48-yard line. Another pass to O'Neal gave Towson a first down at the Dukes' 40-yard line. With third-and-five at the 35-yard line, Coach Albert decided to punt and his decision paid off.
Nolan hit a beautiful 27-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Dukes' eight-yard line where they took possession with 8:08 left in the game.
A pair of runs by Coe enabled the Dukes to reach their 23-yard line. A 16-yard pass to the dangerous Clark gave JMU a first down at its 43-yard line. When Kelvin Griffin broke off a 12-yard run, the Dukes were in Towson territory at the 44-yard line. On third-and-five, Bowles tried to pass to Clark. But Kihn intercepted the pass and returned it 25 yards to the Dukes' 38-yard line.
With 4:31 remaining in the game, the Tigers handed off to Kirchoff on three straight plays. With a fourth-and-one at the Dukes' 29-yard Coach Albert sent Nolan into the game for a 47-yard field goal attempt. It was wide to the left and the Dukes were still alive with 2:36 remaining.
On the first play, Bowles hooked up with Clark for a big pass play. His 45-yard catch gave the Dukes a first down at the Towson 26-yard line. On the next play, Bowles tried to find Clark in the end zone but the Tigers' All-American safety, Gary Rubeling, intercepted the pass and returned it to the Towson 17-yard line. It was the 13th interception of the season for Rubeling, who led NCAA Division II in that category.
With 2:21 remaining, the Tiger offense took the field hoping to run out the clock. However, the Dukes had three time outs left. Facing a third-and-three at their own 24-yard line, Rogers was sacked by sophomore defensive end Charles Haley for a six-yard loss.
If Haley's name sounds familiar, there's a reason. After graduating from JMU, he became an All-Pro lineman in the National Football League for 13 years. He played eight years with the San Francisco 49ers and five years with the Dallas Cowboys and recorded more than 100 sacks. Haley achieved the unique distinction of playing on five Super Bowl championship teams. He was a member of San Francisco's Super Bowl XXIII team as well as the Super Bowl XXIV squad. He also played for the Cowboys when they won Super Bowl XXVII, Super Bowl XXVIII and Super Bowl XXX.
At any rate, Haley's sack pushed the Tigers back to their own 18-yard line and Nolan was sent into the game to punt. An illegal procedure penalty, the Tigers' 13th penalty of the game, pushed Towson back to the 13-yard line.
Under a heavy rush, Nolan's punt was partially blocked and it rolled dead at the Towson 46-yard line. With 1:02 remaining, the Dukes had one time out and 46 yards to go to tie the game.
On second down, Bowles found Job open at the Towson 27-yard line for a first down. After throwing an incomplete pass, Bowles was sacked by Poist back at the Towson 39-yard line for a loss of 12 yards. With 31 seconds left, the Dukes used their final time out.
Facing third-and-22, Bowles tried to complete another pass to Clark. However, the Tigers were called for pass interference, the most costly penalty of the game. As a result, James Madison had a first down at the Tigers' 16-yard line with 26 seconds left.
After throwing two incomplete passes into the end zone, Bowles faced a third-and-10 at the 16-yard line. Instead of trying to force another pass into the end zone, he threw to Clark on a crossing pattern at the 10-yard line with the hope he could get out of bounds or make it to the end zone.
But Kauffman, the Tigers' strong safety, caught up with Clark and dragged him down at the eight-yard line. Since the Dukes couldn't stop the clock, time ran out before there was another play.
The hard-fought 10-3 victory set off a wild celebration on the visitors' side of the field. The victory clinched a berth in the NCAA Division II playoffs. On the next day, Towson found out its post-season destination.
In the win, the Tigers were able to overcome their 14 penalties for 131 yards by sacking Bowles seven times while holding the Dukes to 84 yards rushing.
Poist led the Tiger defense with nine tackles, including four sacks. He was honored as the ECAC Division II Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against JMU. He finished the regular season with 65 tackles and a school record 17 sacks. Argent also had nine tackles with two sacks while Kauffman made eight tackles, including the game-ending stop on Clark.
Rogers, who completed 18 of 26 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown, was sacked six times. O'Neal led the Tigers with seven receptions for 90 yards and a TD. He finished the game with 125 all-purpose yards.
Murphy caught five passes for 72 yards.
In 1983, turnovers were a key to the Tigers' success and they helped them beat JMU. At JMU, the Tigers forced three turnovers while turning the ball over twice.
On the season, Coach Gordy Combs' defense forced 55 turnovers. The Tigers intercepted 27 passes and recovered 28 fumbles. Since Towson only turned the ball over 21 times, the Tigers were an astonishing plus-34 on turnover ratio.
"That victory was as good as any win we've ever had," said Coach Albert. "It assured us of a spot in the playoffs. Beating them in such an important game was a great response by our team."
In the quarter-finals of the Division II playoffs, the Tigers faced North Dakota State in Fargo, N.D. However, the Bison pulled out a 24-17 victory on their way to the national championship.