By Dan O'Connell, Associate Director of Athletic Media Relations
Although it's been quite a few years since the Tigers earned a football win over James Madison, anyone who saw their 28-21 victory over the Dukes in 1992 saw a game that will always be prominent in their minds.
The Tigers' Homecoming win over the Dukes featured a record-setting performance by tailback Tony Vinson and gave first-year Coach Gordy Combs a victory that turned the Tigers' season around.
The seeds for Vinson's record-setting performance were actually sown the previous Saturday when the Tigers were on their busses coming home from Williamsburg, Va. where they lost to undefeated William & Mary, 43-15. Although the Tigers had kept the game close for the first half, the Tribe shut them down after intermission. More than halfway through Coach Combs' first season, Towson had a 2-4 record with a game against James Madison on the horizon.
As he scanned the statistics sheet from the game, Coach Combs took note of the fact that Vinson had picked up 141 rushing yards against a rugged Tribe defense.
The day after the William & Mary game, Coach Combs got together with his coaching staff for their usual Sunday afternoon meeting. When they were all seated, Combs walked over to the bulletin board and wrote "44 for 40."
He told his staff, "That's our offensive game plan for next week."
Before the coaches could ask what he was talking about, he explained. He said, "We've got a great tailback with great size (Vinson). He wears Number 44. We're going to give #44 the ball for 40 carries and see what happens."
Until that moment, the Tigers had been primarily a passing team and featured a sophomore quarterback named Dan Crowley, who eventually set school records for passing yardage and touchdown passes.
Before a Homecoming crowd of nearly 5,000 at Minnegan Stadium, the Tigers executed Combs' game plan to perfection.
Trailing by 7-0 in the first quarter, the Tigers marched 77 yards in 12 plays to tie the game. On the 12-play drive, Vinson carried the ball eight times. When the Tigers reached the Dukes' 11-yard line, Vinson ran the ball on three straight plays. His two-yard touchdown run with 2:07 left in the first quarter tied the game at 7-7.
When the first quarter came to an end, Vinson had rushed for 46 yards on nine carries.
After the Dukes took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Tigers stuck to their game plan. Midway through the quarter, the Tigers drove to the JMU five-yard line where they turned the ball over on a fumble.
After forcing a punt by the Dukes from deep in their own territory, the Tigers took over at their own 32-yard line. After Vinson picked up 18 yards on three plays, Crowley figured he had the JMU defense all set up for a pass play. With the Dukes focusing on Vinson, Crowley found Mark Orlando deep down the middle and connected with him for a 43-yard touchdown pass, tying the game at 14-14.
In the first half alone, Vinson ran for 103 yards on 18 carries. But he was just getting warmed up.
Following a very effective offensive line which included tackles Karl Nieberlein and John Loch, guards Greg Lohr and Andy Rehkemper, and center Mike Gunthrop, Vinson continued to run to open space in the second half.
On their opening drive of the third quarter, the Tigers found themselves backed up at their own eight-yard line. Led by Vinson and the offensive line, Towson marched 92 yards on 13 plays to score the go-ahead touchdown and give the Tigers a 21-14 lead.
On the 13-play drive, the Tigers ran the ball 11 times. Vinson had 56 rushing yards on seven attempts. On second-and-goal at the one, the Tigers surprised JMU as fullback John Swigart got the call and scored the go-ahead touchdown.
The Dukes responded with a long drive of their own to tie the score at 21-21 with 4:54 left in the third quarter.
But the Tigers wasted no time moving the ball again. Starting at their own 20-yard line, they steadily moved upfield on the ground. By the time the third quarter ended, the Tigers had a first down at the JMU 20-yard line. On the fourth play of the final quarter, Vinson scored his second touchdown of the game on a one-yard run over right guard, giving Towson a 28-21 lead.
On their 80-yard, 15-play drive for the go-ahead TD, the Tigers used 6:21 off the clock. They ran the ball 14 times on the drive as Vinson rushed for 51 yards on seven attempts. By the time the Tigers reached the end zone, he had run for 216 yards and was closing in on the school record of 221 yards set by David Meggett in 1988.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Dukes had moved the ball inside the Tigers' 20-yard line. However, Russell Stoner recovered a fumble at the 18-yard line, giving the Tigers the ball with 10:42 left in the game.
Hoping to run out the clock, the Tigers marched to the JMU 17-yard line. On the drive, Vinson broke school records for rushing yards in a game and rushing attempts in a game. A holding penalty against the Tigers stopped the drive and Buddy Dunn came into the game to try a 42-yard field goal which missed.
With 2:59 remaining in the game, the Dukes took over at their own 25-yard line. But the Tigers stopped JMU on fourth down and Towson took over at the Dukes' 28-yard line with 1:58 left in the game.
A 13-yard run by Vinson gave the Tigers a first down at the 15-yard line. On the second play, Vinson reached the eight-yard line and the Dukes were penalized for a face mask penalty.
With the Dukes unable to stop the clock and the ball at the four-yard line, Coach Combs took Vinson out of the game and instructed Crowley to kneel down twice to end the game.
When the final gun had sounded, the Tigers had rushed for 360 yards on a school record 65 attempts. Vinson had broken the school record with 264 yards on a record 41 carries. In addition, Brian McCarty ran for 74 yards on 16 tries while Swigart picked up 25 yards on six attempts.
With three games remaining in the season, Vinson had 1,029 rushing yards on the year to break another school record.
These were all records that the Purdue transfer was destined to shatter in 1993, his senior season.
"I love this kind of football," said Vinson after the game. "Coach Combs came up and told me and the whole offense last week that if we can run against JMU, we're going to run. The line was unbelievable. I had enough time to decide whether to run wide or cut back. It was a running back's dream."
En route to the win over the Dukes, the Tigers controlled the clock for 35:12.
Unfortunately for Vinson, the JMU game was the highlight of his junior season. In the Tigers' next game, a 35-33 come-from-behind win at Indiana of Pa., he suffered a season-ending knee injury and he finished the year with a school record 1,046 yards.
Playing a full ten-game season in 1993, Vinson broke school records as well as several NCAA Division I-AA marks. He finished the season with a school record 2,016 rushing yards, a mark that led the nation. Vinson also led the nation with 23 touchdowns scored and with 2,057 all-purpose yards - winning the I-AA "unofficial" triple crown.
In his final home game, a win over Bucknell, he broke the NCAA I-AA single game record with 364 rushing yards. In his final college game, he ran for 327 yards at Morgan State, giving him the NCAA record of 691 yards in back-to-back games, a mark that still stands.
A fifth round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers, Vinson played in the NFL for nearly four seasons until a shoulder injury ended his career.
Despite the loss of Vinson, the 1992 Tigers had a very strong finish to the season. After the win over Indiana evened their record at 4-4, the Tigers edged Northeastern and lost to Delaware in their final two games. The Tigers' final 5-5 record in 1992 represented their first non-losing campaign in five years.
The strong finish also set the stage for the 1993 and 1994 seasons, years in which Towson posted back-to-back 8-2 records.