TOWSON, Md. - Overcoming three first half turnovers, a 14-7 second quarter deficit and an upset-minded Towson University squad, eighth-ranked Massachusetts (4-1, 2-0) shut down the Tigers in the second half as the Minutemen pulled out a 27-14 Colonial Athletic Association victory over Towson (1-4, 0-2) at Minnegan Field at Johnny Unitas® Stadium on Saturday evening.
Although the Tigers won the turnover battle, the Minutemen dominated the second half as they shut out the Tigers after intermission. UMass turned the ball over three times and the Tigers converted both turnovers into touchdowns.
"For us to beat a team like this, we need to force turnovers and we can't turn the ball over," said Towson Coach Rob Ambrose. "We forced three turnovers and we didn't turn the ball over. As a result, we were in said ballgame.
"I am annoyed and I an angry we lost," he added. "UMass is an awesome offensive team and they are incredibly talented and deep. We wanted to control the clock and keep their offense on the sideline. Unfortunately, we couldn't do that. Our defense did a great job against them."
Led by senior linebacker Donte Blakey, who made a career high 11 tackles, the Tiger defense slowed down an offense that was averaging 461 total yards and 30.2 points per game. The Minutemen managed 385 yards of total offense against Towson.
After they were forced to punt on their first possession, the Minutemen marched 67 yards on 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter. Junior tailback Jonathan Hernandez, who ran for 60 yards on 19 carries, capped off the drive with a one-yard run around the left end, giving the Minutemen a 7-0 lead.
A 37-yard kickoff return by senior Hakeem Moore gave the Tigers excellent field position at their 43-yard line. Junior quarterback Chris Hart, making his first appearance as a punter, boomed a 48-yard punt that backed up the Minutemen at their own seven-yard line.
Two plays later, senior quarterback Kyle Havens was sacked at the one-yard line by blitzing cornerback Jeremy Gardner. Gardner's tackle forced a fumble which junior defensive tackle Marcus Valentine picked up at the three-yard and carried into the end zone for a touchdown. When senior Nick Wallace converted, the game was tied at 7-7 with 4:25 left in the first quarter.
The touchdown represented the first points scored by Towson in the first quarter this season.
Late in the first quarter, the Tigers got another huge break when Shane Viveiros muffed a punt which was recovered by Doug Shaw at the UMass 23-yard line. On the next play, sophomore tailback Dominique Booker broke off a 14-yard run, giving Towson a first down at the nine-yard line. Three plays later, the Tigers faced a fourth down-and-goal at the UMass one-yard line. But, the UMass defense rose to the occasion, stopping Booker short of the goal line.
Before the UMass defense finished celebrating their goal line stand, they had to go back on the field. On the first play after the Minutemen took possession, Hernandez fumbled at the five-yard line. When sophomore linebacker Trevor Walker recovered, the Tigers had a first down at the UMass five.
On the first play after the turnover, Hart threw a sideline pass to sophomore Alex Blake. Blake got a great block from wide receiver Erron Banks and strolled into the end zone with a five-yard touchdown. With 13:22 left in the first half, the Tigers owned a 14-7 lead over the eighth-ranked Minutemen.
Midway through the second quarter, Havens completed a 24-yard pass to junior tight end Emil Igwenagu, moving UMass to the Towson 35-yard line. The drive stalled at the Towson 16-yard line and sophomore Caleb Violette kicked a 33-yard field goal, cutting the deficit to 14-10.
Another excellent punt by Hart pushed the Minutemen back to their own three-yard line with 3:26 remaining. Running a no-huddle offense, Havens moved the Minutemen down the field very quickly. Completing six of seven passes for 73 yards, Havens directed a 97-yard, 11-play drive that put the Minutemen ahead, 17-14. With 29 seconds left at the Tigers' ten-yard line, Havens faked a ball spike to stop the clock, held on to the ball and threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to senior Anthony Nelson. It was Havens' sixth touchdown pass of the season.
"Our last drive of the first half was a key for us," admitted Havens. "That set the tone for the rest of the game. We played a very good defense tonight. They hit hard and really came after us."
Early in the third quarter, a 44-yard pass play to junior Julian Talley, combined with a roughing-the-passer penalty against Towson, gave UMass a first down at the Tigers' 12-yard line. That set up Violette's second field goal of the game, a 23-yarder, giving UMass a 20-14 lead.
Meanwhile, the UMass defense did a great job keeping the Tiger offense backed up. In the third quarter, Towson was held to only three first downs.
Early in the fourth quarter, senior tailback John Griffin got warmed up. A first team All-CAA selection last season, Griffin transferred to UMass when Northeastern eliminated its football program. Griffin led the Minutemen on a 60-yard touchdown drive, giving UMass a 27-14 lead with 13:55 left in the game. On the 60-yard drive, Griffin picked up 50 rushing yards on five carries. He scored his fifth touchdown of the season on a five-yard run.
Griffin, who ran for 200 yards against Towson last season, rushed for 117 yards on 21 carries to lead the UMass running game which accumulated 191 yards against the Tigers.
Trying to get back into the game, the Tigers moved the ball deep into UMass territory in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Nygee Carmichael, who made his first career start at tailback, caught a 30-yard pass from Hart, giving Towson a first down at the UMass ten-yard line. After Hart ran for five yards on first down, he was sacked for a 13-yard loss on third down, moving the ball back to the 18-yard line. On fourth down, Hart scrambled around the backfield but couldn't find anyone open. He was forced to run out of bounds at the 16-yard line where the Minutemen took over.
"This was a great win on the road for us against a very good Towson football team," said UMass Kevin Morris. "When we fell behind in the first half, nobody panicked. It shows the character of our team that we responded as well as we did."
Junior linebacker Tyler Holmes led the stingy UMass defense by making a career high 18 tackles with one sack and three tackles for lost yardage. Senior linebacker Mike Mele added 13 tackles as the Minutemen limited the Tigers to 11 first downs, 130 rushing yards and 263 yards of total offense.
Booker paced the Tigers' running game with 46 yards on 10 carries while Carmichael added 38 yards on eight attempts. Hart, who spent most of the game alternating at quarterback with Bart Blanchard, completed five of nine passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. Blanchard completed 6 of 12 passes for 64 yards.
"Rotating quarterbacks is not what I want to do," admitted Ambrose. "But, my goal is to keep our quarterbacks from turning the ball over. Against an excellent UMass defense, there were no turnovers so that part of the strategy worked."
Carmichael was the Tigers' top receiver with three catches for 44 yards. The Minutemen did a good job containing Towson senior Hakeem Moore. The Tigers' leading receiver, Moore caught three passes for 35 yards against the Minutemen.
Moore, who came into the game as the CAA leader in all-purpose yards, had a total of 152 all-purpose yards against UMass. He returned five kickoffs for 104 yards.
While Blakey had a career high 11 tackles against UMass, Gardner also made 11 tackles with one sack and a forced fumble. Walker also had a career best 11 tackles and recovered a fumble. Sophomore Jordan Dangerfield added nine tackles and forced a fumble while freshman Kyle Polk made a career high nine tackles.
"Against UMass, everyone saw the growth of our team," added Ambrose. "We were playing a team that rolled up 37 points at Michigan and I'm sure they came in here thinking they were going to score 60 points.
"But, they escaped with a win," he said. "Our football team got better tonight. They know that their team didn't get better tonight."
The Tigers will host third-ranked James Madison next Saturday night in a CAA game at 7:00 p.m.
TIGER TALES: When Valentine scored on a three-yard fumble return, it marked the first time since 2005 that a Tiger scored on a fumble return ... On Nov. 5, 2005, Trent Covington had a 70-yard fumble return for a TD against Villanova.
The Tigers played their first turnover-free game in more than two years against UMass ... The last time that Towson did not commit a turnover was Sept. 20, 2008 when they lost to Coastal Carolina on the road, 31-3.
With Violette's two successful field goal attempts, Tiger opponents have now made 19 field goal attempts in a row ... Tiger opponents have not missed a field goal try since November 15, 2008 when Joe Marcoux of Villanova missed a 24-yard kick.
Sophomore wide receiver Tom Ryan of Towson, who has nine receptions for 60 yards and two touchdowns, missed his third straight game with a knee injury.