The journey of the 2012 Towson Football season ended on Saturday, November 17 in Durham, New Hampshire but it began soon after the Tigers lost a thrilling, 40-38 loss in the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2011 at a sold-out Unitas Stadium.
Towson returned most of their players from a 9-3 team that ended up finishing ninth in the nation. Their biggest challenge was handling the expectations that come with success, something that program had really never experienced at the FCS level.
On defense, due to injuries and academic issues, the biggest concern for head coach Rob Ambrose was at outside linebacker. By the time the Tigers were ready for their opener against Kent State, junior Telvion Clark, a transfer from Virginia Tech and true freshman Bryton Barr, were instant starters. Junior college transfer Monte Gaddis was also waiting in the wings at middle linebacker, while sophomore Rutgers transfer Fred Overstreet was also in the rotation.
Towson's first game against Kent State on the road did not go as planned. The Tigers fell 41-21 as they turned the ball over six times, including four fumbles. Kent State's speedy running back Dri Archer returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown after the Tigers had cut the lead to 17-7 with 1:39 left in the second quarter.
The Tigers had a bye-their only break of the season-after the Kent State game and had to get right into the conference slate with a home game against William & Mary on Sept. 15. Sophomore running back Terrance West ran for 153 yards to lead the Tigers while senior wide receiver Erron Banks caught his first touchdown pass of his career. But it was the defense that came up big, as they held the Tribe to 258 total yards and wound up with three sacks.
Towson followed their first win with a convincing 46-17 win over St. Francis (PA). The game was highlighted by West breaking the Towson career record by scoring three touchdowns, which gave him 34 in his brief career. Sophomore return man Derrick Joseph also added his second career touchdown on a 99-yard return after the Red Flash went scored a touchdown on their first possession.
On Sept. 29, Towson lost to #3 LSU, 38-22 before 92,154 at Death Valley. This was a historic performance for many reasons, including West adding to his career record total with two more touchdowns.. When West ran it from one yard mid-way through the second quarter, the (Towson) Tigers had a 9-7 lead over the (LSU) Tigers. That score was actually shown on the scoreboard at Camden Yards during an Orioles/Red Sox game.
After battling LSU and earning national respect, the #12 Tigers were still 2-2 after facing two FBS teams and had to back on the road to take on #5 James Madison from Harrisonburg, Va. The Dukes, who were coming off a bye, were outplayed in all but two categories: the turnover battle and the scoreboard. Towson fell 13-10 on a Justin Thorpe nine-yard run with 1:24 left. That was moments after senior quarterback Grant Enders gave the Tigers a 10-6 lead on a quarterback bootleg. Towson once again had issues with turnovers, as Enders was picked off twice and fumbled once.
The Tigers came back home at 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the CAA. A matchup against Maine on Oct. 13 was probably a must-win scenario. The Tigers did pull off a 24-19 victory but it was difficult. Enders ran for 98 yards and one touchdown, while he threw for 260 yards and one touchdown. Towson had 507 total yards, while Maine had just 302 yards but nine Tiger penalties halted drives and junior kicker D.J. Soven missed kicks of 47 yards, 37 yards and 40 yards.
"The majority of our offensive penalties have come in the red zone," said Amborse after the game. "The ones we committed and there were just penalties that were called. Add to the fact that D.J. had the worst day of his career, to come away with no points in three or four times, that hurts. But the sign of a good team is to find a way to beat that adversity."
Towson followed that performance with a disappointing 31-20 home loss to #7 Old Dominion. The Monarchs led from start-to-finish as quarterback Taylor Henicke threw for 264 yards with one score, while rushing for 71 yards and two scores. Towson had no trouble moving the ball, rushing for 165 yards and passing for 290 yards, but Towson had two turnovers and once again had trouble moving the ball. They also missed West, who missed the game due to a death in the family.
Most thought that Towson, with a 3-4 overall record and 2-2 CAA record had no margin for error. The prevailing thought was that they needed to run the table to have a chance. And despite going through all sorts of off-the-field adversity before the game, the Tigers took on #19 Villanova on the road. It's one thing to go into #Villanova needing a win in the worst way, and then having to go through a week of distractions that could throw a dysfunctional team for a loop. But instead of folding like a tent, the "distractions" forced Towson to come together as a team, in a 49-35 win.
The Tigers rushed for 321 yards, including a career-high 122 yards for Enders. West came back with renewed vigor, rushing for two touchdowns and catching a 78-yard pass from Enders.
"For this year's team, the bigger picture, it means one step closer to our goal," said Ambrose after the game. "But in a much bigger perspective for every kid in that locker room, this win defines team. If you don't care about yourself, and all you care about your teammates, you can do amazing things. Right now, we are a very, very good team."
Towson followed the Villanova win with a thrilling, 34-27 overtime win over Delaware at Newark. West had two more rushing touchdowns, while freshman fullback Emmanuel Holder caught his first two touchdown passes his career. Delaware tied the game with two seconds left on a 40-yard field goal from Sean Baner. But in their first drive, Towson ran all over the Delaware defense, capped off by a West three-yard run. The defense came up big holding Delaware to four plays before junior cornerback Jordan Love intercepted Blue Hens' quarterback Trent Hurley at the Towson one-yard line.
On Nov. 10, the Tigers took on struggling Rhode Island and dominated the game, winning 41-10. This was a contest early, as the Tigers were up just 20-10 at the half. The game was broken up on the first play of the second half when senior Dominique Booker scored on an 83-yard run for the second-longest in the history of the program. Booker ended his home career with 181 yards on seven carries.
So most thought it would come down to how Towson performed at Durham, New Hampshire. The Tigers not only won, but convincingly and methodically took apart the Wildcats, 64-35 on Nov. 17. Towson racked up 660 total yards, while West ran for 236 yards and Enders threw for 245 yards and two scores.
Towson won four straight games on the road, beat ranked teams in #19 Villanova, #23 Delaware and #7 New Hampshire. The Tigers finished 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the CAA to earn a co-championship with New Hampshire, Richmond and Villanova.
The Tigers had 14 players earn spots on the first three All-CAA teams. For the players not returning, DE Frank Beltre and S Jordan Dangerfield were named to the first team for the second year in a row. Enders and DE Romale Tucker made the second-team. WR Tom Ryan and DT Matt Morgan earned the third team for the firt time.
The good news is that eight of the 14 players are returning including West, who earned first-team honors, while rushing for 1,051 yards (5.4ypc) and 1t touchdowns. Offensive tackles Eric Pike and Randall Harris both earned a berth on the first team and will be back for their final year. On the second team, junior CB Jordan Love, OG Doug Shaw and MLB Gaddis will also be back next season. On the third team, two sophomores earned berths in KR Derrick Joseph and CB Tye Smith.
On offense, the Tigers need to replace Enders (615 yds rushing, 6 TDs, 2,337yds passing, 19 TDs, 8 INTs), who really finished strong. Redshirt freshman Connor Frazier and sophomore Joe Brennan are expected to compete for the starting quarterback job in the spring. Brennan is the Wisconsin transfer who could have an edge based on size and mobility, but Frazier has been in the system longer.
The running backs lose Booker (463 yards, 4 TDs), but retain West, Sterlin Phifer (246 yds) and Trea Jones. Talented freshman Rob Chesson should also factor in the picture in the spring.
The biggest hole on offense aside from quarterback will be at wide receiver. They Tigers lose Ryan (44 for 533 yards), Gerrard Sheppard (30 fo 310 yards), Erron Banks (24 for 270) and Alex Blake (17 for 170 ). Junior Spencer Wilkins (32 for 352 yards) is back along with Leon Kinnard (11 for 63 yards), Joseph, redshirt freshmen Mac Sanders, and Arione Scott. Expect another player or two to be added to that position.
At tight end, the Tigers lose big Cory Kirby (7 of 116 yards, 2 TDs), but do retain junior James Oboh (9 for 158 yards) and sophomore Daniel Vaughan (3 for 19). At fullback, freshmen Emmanuel Holder, Ryan Magill and Dreon Johnson all return.
The strength of next year's offense should be on the line with Shaw, Pike and Harris back for their senior seasons. Junior Anthony Davis returns at left guard, while junior Charles Johnson returns at right guard. They also have experienced veterans now in junior RT/G Jake McDowell and RT Jake Schunke returning.
On defense, Towson loses Morgan, Beltre and Tucker, so there is concern about replacing three all-conference players. They combined for 12 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. They also lose valuable DT reserve Ben Chroniger, who had 11 tackles and a sacks off the bench. Junior DTArnold Farmer (25 tackles, one sacks, two forced fumbles, one sack) is back along with three key players in the defensive line rotation. Redshirt freshman DT Jon Desir (14 tackles, one sack) should compete for a starting job along with sophomore DL Brendan Gannon (17 tackles, 3 sacks). Redshirt freshman Drew Cheripko added 15 tackles and three sacks. True freshman Max Tejada (6-2, 285) took a redshirt year while DE Stefan Janik (6-4, 250) was injured. Two other key freshman have tremendous potential in DE Syd Holt (6-4, 210) and DT Ra-Zahn Howard (6-3, 300), who could have immediate impacts next season.
At linebacker, Gaddis is back after an outstanding season, where he recorded 74 tackles and led the team with five sacks. Clark missed some time due to injury, but still managed 49 tackles, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble. True freshman Bryton Barr played about as well as you can play in 2012 considering his youth. He managed 74 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Overstreet (10 tackles) and Kenton Powell, who had 13 tackles before getting injured in the second game. could also compete for time.
In the secondary, Towson has to replace Dangerfield, arguably one of the greatest safeties in the history of the program. He finished third in tackles with 69, adding six passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He missed the New Hampshire game and was replaced by redshirt freshman Walter Dunston, who had nine sacks with interception and one fumble recovery while being used mainly as a special teams player. True freshman Christian Carpenter showed great promise, with 22 tackles and two pass breakups despite missing the final two games and only starting once. Sophomore Thomas Bradley (29 tackles, two forced fumbles) started 10 games and made major strides this year.
At cornerback, Love (35 tackles, two picks, 5 pass breakups) is back along with Tye Smith (75 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one pick, 2.5 sacks). True freshman Donnell Lewis is also back after playing limited time, while fellow freshman Julian Killikelly-Lee adds speed.
On special teams, Soven made 9 of 16 field goals with a long of 43, and 36 of 41 extra points. Sophomore punter R.J. Peppers improved this season, averaging 39.5 yards per punt. Kinnard handled the kick (17ypr) and punt returns (6.5ypr). Joseph (26.3ypr) was benched on kick returns as he struggled with fumbles early in the season.