KINGSTON, R.I. – They have been called the “Turnaround Tigers” and the “Worst To First Tigers.” Now they have a new identity. They are the Colonial Athletic Association champions.
One year after finishing last in the CAA with an 0-8 record, the Tigers (9-2, 7-1) completed their inspiring drive to their first CAA championship with a tense 28-17 come-from-behind victory over Rhode Island (3-8, 2-6) at Meade Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Combined with New Hampshire’s 30-27 win over Maine, the Tigers won the CAA championship outright. They earned the CAA’s automatic qualifier for the NCAA FCS Playoffs.
The Tigers will learn their NCAA FCS playoff destination on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. on ESPNU. The team will be meeting at PAWS in the University Union to watch the show.
“We knew this was going to be a very tough game for us,” admitted Towson Coach Rob Ambrose. “Rhode Island might be the best three-win team in college football. We were fortunate to get out of here with a win.
“This is such a great moment for Towson football,” Ambrose admitted. “Winning a championship in the CAA is a tremendous accomplishment. This championship is for everyone who has ever worn a Towson football uniform. As a coach, you couldn’t ask for anything else from a team. At the start, the only ones who believed in us were ourselves, the Towson University community and the Towson football alumni.”
For the first time since their Oct. 15 victory at Old Dominion, the Tigers were forced to come from behind to win.
The Tigers came into the game averaging 248 rushing yards per game but the URI defense held them to a seasonal low 154 yards rushing. Freshman standout Terrance West, who entered the game as the CAA rushing leader, was held to 52 yards on 19 carries.
Cast in the role of spoiler, Rhode Island took control in the first quarter as the Rams outgained the Tigers, 116-to-19 yards. The Rams won the opening coin toss and marched deep into Towson territory. After quarterback Robert Bentsen was sacked on third down by Matt Morgan at the 11-yard line, the Rams went for a field goal. Senior Louie Feinstein booted a 28-yard field goal to give URI a 3-0 lead.
After the Rams’ defense forced a punt by the Tigers, URI marched 62 yards in ten plays to take a 10-0 lead. Under heavy pressure, Bentsen completed a 20-yard pass to tight end Joe Migliarese, giving URI a 10-0 advantage with 52 seconds left in the first quarter.
“We knew we’d get our chance,” said Towson quarterback Grant Enders. “We have a lot of confidence and we knew we would be able to move the ball.”
On their second possession, the Tigers’ offense got itself in gear. They marched 67 yards in eight plays to cut their deficit to 10-7 when West scored his 26th touchdown of the season on a three-yard run. Facing third-and-four at the URI 14-yard line, Enders ran for six yards to set up first-and-goal. Two plays later, West scored his touchdown.
After receiving the kickoff, the Rams had great field position, thanks to a personal foul penalty on the Tigers. Starting at their own 45-yard line, the Rams moved into Towson territory. Facing fourth-and-11 at the Towson 41-yard line, Feinstein tried a fake punt. The Tigers weren’t fooled and Romale Tucker tackled Matt Rae at the Tigers’ 39-yard line.
The Tigers capitalized on their break almost immediately. They marched 61 yards in 12 plays and used up more than six minutes. Trea Jones and Enders each converted a third down on the drive. Jones ran for five yards on 3rd-and-four to move the ball to the 20-yard line. Enders’ eight-yard run gave the Tigers a first down at the Rams’ ten-yard line. On the next play, West scored his second touchdown of the game on a ten-yard run. When D.J. Soven converted, the Tigers had a 14-10 lead with 1:53 left in the half.
In the final minute of the half, the Rams drove into Towson territory but Feinstein missed a 38-yard field goal as the Tigers owned a 14-10 lead at intermission.
On their opening drive of the third quarter, the Tigers drove 65 yards on nine plays to extend their lead to 21-10. A 30-yard pass from Enders to tight end Mike Evans moved the Tigers into URI territory. Several plays later, Enders completed a 21-yard TD pass to junior Tom Ryan to give the Tigers a 21-10 advantage.
However, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Tigers for excessive celebration enabled the Rams to get excellent field position for their next drive.
The Rams got the ball at the Tigers’ 49-yard line to start the drive. Facing fourth down-and-two at the Tigers’ eight-yard line, senior fullback Chris Mancuso barely got the first down with a two-yard run. On the next play, senior defensive tackle Willie McGinnis came into the game at running back and took the handoff. He scored the first touchdown of his career on a six-yard run.
Trailing by 21-17, the Rams received a huge break when senior Evan Shields recovered a fumble at the Tigers’ 44-yard line. However, the Tiger defense came up with a huge stop and forced a punt.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, senior safety Nick Oates came up with the Tigers’ biggest defensive play of the game when he intercepted a pass at the Tigers’ 17-yard line.
After a punt by R.J. Peppers backed up the Rams at their own 17, a fumbled lateral by Brian Johnson-Farrell pushed URI back inside its own ten-yard line. When Feinstein punted from his end zone, the Tigers took over at the URI 41-yard line. Five plays later, Enders completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ryan, his second of the game. That gave the Tigers a 28-17 lead with 6:06 remaining.
The Tiger defense came up with another stop with 4:25 left in the game. On fourth down-and-one, Rob Osborne tackled Bentsen for an eight-yard loss. The Tigers took over on downs at the Rams’ 39-yard line and ran out the clock.
Enders led the Tigers with 272 yards of total offense. He completed 20 of 26 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He was also the Tigers’ leading rusher with 60 yards on eight carries.
The most improved team in NCAA FCS, the Tigers’ nine victories are an eight-game improvement over last season.
They have become the first team in NCAA history to qualify for the NCAA post-season playoffs at the FCS level, the Division II level and the Division III level. The Tigers will be making their first NCAA post-season appearance since 1986.