BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - For the second year in a row, the Tigers opened their football season with a monumental challenge, facing a Big Ten Conference team on the road.
On Thursday evening, the Tigers faced Indiana University before a crowd of 35,242 in Memorial Stadium in the season opener for both teams. Although they didn't pull off the upset, they did throw a mild scare into the Hoosiers.
After spotting the Hoosiers a 17-0 first quarter lead, the Tigers came to life offensively in the second quarter before dropping a 51-17 decision.
Comparing this year's opener to last season's 47-14 loss at Northwestern, Coach Rob Ambrose admitted, "I feel much better than last year. At one point in the second quarter, we were down by ten points and we had all the momentum.
"For us to win a game like this, we have to catch some breaks and we can't turn the ball over," he added. "We didn't get any breaks. We forced two fumbles and didn't recover either one. We turned the ball over three times and they scored 21 points."
The Hoosiers were able to prevail in spite of an electrifying performance by junior quarterback Chris Hart. A transfer from Georgia Military College, Hart sparked the Tiger offense by running for 123 yards on 13 carries while passing for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
With 123 rushing yards, he became the first Tiger quarterback ever to run for more than 100 yards in a game.
The opening minutes of the game seemed promising for the Tigers.
On the first possession of the game, sophomore linebacker Trevor Walker made a big play on second down when he tackled junior Damarlo Belcher four yards behind the line of scrimmage on a screen pass. After the Tigers stopped the Hoosiers on third down, Indiana was forced to punt and the Tigers took over at their own 23-yard line.
On third down-and-five at the Tiger 29-yard line, the Hoosiers received the first big break of the game. Making his debut as the Tigers' quarterback, Hart appeared to have completed a pass to sophomore Alex Blake at the 37-yard line. However, senior linebacker Tyler Repogle made the tackle and came up with the ball. The officials ruled that Blake had been tackled before the ball came loose.
Since the game was being televised on the Big Ten Network, the replay official called for a review. The replay showed that Repogle actually took the ball away from Blake before he hit the ground and he was given credit for an interception. The Hoosiers took over at the Tigers' 37-yard line.
Senior quarterback Ben Chappell of Indiana took advantage of the turnover as he engineered a 37-yard, five-play drive. With 9:03 left in the first quarter, he gave the Hoosiers a lead when he completed a 12-yard touchdown pass to freshman tight end Ted Bolser. When sophomore Nick Freeland made the conversion kick, the Hoosiers owned a 7-0 lead.
Two plays after the kickoff, Hart was forced to roll to the right under pressure. His pass downfield was intercepted by senior safety Mitchell Evans, who returned it to the 50-yard line. On the second play after the turnover, sophomore running back Darius Willis followed some dominating blocking and scampered 49 yards for a touchdown, giving Indiana a 14-0 lead.
After forcing the Tigers to punt on their next possession, the Hoosiers took over at their own 26-yard line. Once again, Chappell directed a long drive. Indiana moved to the Towson six-yard line where the Tigers held. On fourth down, Freeland kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Hoosiers a 17-0 lead with 2:20 left in the first quarter.
A 33-yard kickoff return by senior Hakeem Moore gave the Tiger offense their best field position of the game. At the end of the first quarter, the Tigers trailed by 17-0 and had been held to 29 yards of offense and one first down.
But the second quarter would be much different.
After moving into Indiana territory for the first time, the Tigers elected to try for a first down when they were faced with a fourth-and-two at the Hoosiers' 45-yard line. On fourth down, Hart kept the ball and ran to his left. Then, he cut across the field and sprinted towards the goal line. A touchdown-saving tackle by Evans knocked Hart out of bounds at the three-yard line. On second down, Hart connected on a five-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Tom Ryan, giving the Tigers their first TD of the season. When senior Nick Wallace converted, the Tigers trailed by 17-7 with 12:21 left in the first half.
Hoping to seize the momentum, Coach Ambrose told Wallace to try an on-sides kick. However, the Hoosiers weren't fooled and Griffen Dahlstrom fell on the ball at the Towson 46-yard line.
"In a game like this, we have to try to surprise them," said Ambrose. "In fact, I thought it had worked but they (the officials) gave them the ball."
On second down, Chappell threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Belcher, giving the Hoosiers a 24-7 lead with 11:46 left in the half.
It didn't take the Tigers long to get that touchdown back. Facing third-and-four at their own 36-yard line, Hart connected with Moore on a crossing pattern. Moore caught the ball at the Hoosiers' 40-yard and outraced three Indiana defenders to the end zone for a touchdown. When Wallace converted, the Tigers were within 24-14.
After forcing the Hoosiers to punt, Hart led the Tigers on another long drive. He ran for 32 yards on four carries during the drive. When the drive stalled at the Indiana 23-yard line, Wallace came in to try and a 40-yard field goal. He missed wide left and the lead remained at 24-14.
With 1:45 left in the first half, senior Trea Burgess capped off a 77-yard drive when he scored on a 12-yard run to give the Hoosiers a 31-14 advantage.
The Hoosiers got another great scoring opportunity when the Tigers made a huge special teams mistake. On fourth down, freshman D.J. Soven came into the game to punt. However, the center snap went over his head. He retreated and picked the ball up and tried to punt it away. However, when he tried to punt it away, Kevin Bush broke through and blocked it, giving the Hoosiers a first down at the Towson 21-yard line.
After Chappell completed a 19-yard pass to Belcher, Willis scored on a two-yard run with 26 seconds left in the half, enabling Indiana to go into halftime with a 38-14 lead.
By scoring two touchdowns in the final 1:45 of the first half, Indiana grabbed a 24-point lead at intermission.
"Those two touchdowns before halftime really hurt us," said Ambrose. "Indiana has a really good offense and we can't help them like that."
On their first possession of the second half, the Tigers gambled and tried to convert on fourth down at their own 39-yard line. When Hart was thrown for a loss, the Hoosiers took over possession. Seven plays later, Freeland kicked a 41-yard field goal to give Indiana a 41-14 lead.
With 8:37 left in the third quarter, cornerback Matt Ernst intercepted a pass by Hart and returned it 53 yards for a TD and a 48-14 Hoosier lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers put together their best drive of the game. They marched 72 yards in 13 plays before Wallace kicked a 29-yard field goal to cut their deficit to 48-17.
The Hoosiers completed the scoring when Mitch Ewald kicked a 32-yard field goal with 8:23 left in the game.
"One of the most encouraging things about this game was the fact that we didn't play scared," Ambrose added. "It is obvious that this is a much different team. Just looking at the faces of our players after the game, I can tell they were disappointed we didn't win."
Speaking about Hart's debut, Coach Ambrose said, "We were pleased with the way he played - minus the turnovers. If he can do a better job managing the game, he is going to be a successful quarterback for us."
The Tigers, who piled up 392 yards of total offense, accumulated more yardage in the season opener than they did in any game last season. Towson also outgained Indiana by 32 yards and ran 21 more offensive plays than the Hoosiers.
While Hart led the Tigers with 288 yards of total offense, Chappell completed 16 of 23 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Willis ran for 102 yards and scored two touchdowns for the Hoosiers.
Ryan led the Tiger receivers with five catches for 41 yards and a touchdown. Moore accumulated 221 all-purpose yards as he caught two passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. He also returned six kickoffs for 158 yards.
Sophomore defensive back Jordan Dangerfield led the Tiger defense with ten tackles. Playing in his first game as a Tiger, the Hofstra transfer had one tackle for lost yardage, forced a fumble and broke up a pass. Senior cornerback Ollie Thomas added eight tackles while junior linebacker Chris Patterson made six tackles.
"Coming into this game, I knew Indiana had a very talented offense," said Coach Ambrose. "I don't like to make too many predictions but I wouldn't be surprised if Indiana averages more than 30 points per game in the Big Ten this season."
TIGER TALES: The Tigers return to Minnegan Field at Johnny Unitas® Stadium for their home opener on Saturday, September 11 when they host Coastal Carolina at 7:00 p.m. ... Opening their season on a Thursday night for only the fifth time ever, the Tigers fell to 4-1 in Thursday night games ... Ryan's touchdown reception in the second quarter was his first TD catch of his career.
In his first game as the Tiger punter, Soven averaged 40.7 yards per punt and had a long punt of 47 yards.
The crowd of 35,242 was the largest crowd ever to see the Tigers play a game ... The previous mark was 31,613 at Navy on August 30, 2008.
# # # # #