TOWSON, Md. - Freshman tailback Terrance West rushed for a season-high 261 yards on 23 carries and scored four touchdowns to lead the No. 12 Tigers (8-2, 6-1) to a 56-42 Colonial Athletic Association victory over No. 7 University of New Hampshire (7-3, 5-2) in a matchup between two of the three teams tied for first place in the CAA before a crowd of 8,366 at Johnny Unitas® Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers and the Wildcats came into the game tied for first place in the CAA with Maine (8-2, 6-1). By beating UNH, the Tigers earned their first-ever win over New Hampshire in eight meetings.
"I knew this was going to be a shootout," Towson Coach Rob Ambrose said. "Early in the game, we knew we had to be very efficient with the ball. New Hampshire is really explosive and they keep the foot on the gas pedal all the time. We didn't want to fall behind."
After the Wildcats took a quick 7-0 lead on a six-yard run by junior running back Dontra Peters, the Tigers scored 21 unanswered points to take a 21-7 lead with 6:54 left in the first quarter. On the Tigers' third offensive play of the game, West scored on a 72-yard run to tie the game at 7-7. After the Tiger defense held UNH on a fourth down play at the Towson 44-yard line, sophomore quarterback Grant Enders threw a 56-yard TD pass to sophomore tight end James Oboh to give the Tigers their first lead of the game.
On the next possession, freshman cornerback Tye Smith intercepted a pass by senior quarterback Kevin Decker and returned it 45 yards to give the Tigers a 21-7 advantage.
With 2:37 remaining in the first quarter, the Wildcats trimmed their deficit to 21-14 when Decker threw a five-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Justin Mello, capping off a high-scoring opening period.
But, the Tigers answered with a pair of touchdowns to increase their edge to 35-14. Early in the second quarter, West capped off a 73-yard, nine-play drive by scoring on a two-yard run. After the defense forced a punt from the UNH four-yard line, Enders threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Oboh to complete a 38-yard drive with 9:38 left in the first half.
Decker answered that score with a one-yard touchdown run to make it a 35-21 deficit. But three plays after the kickoff, West broke loose for a 69-yard touchdown run to give the Tigers a 42-21 advantage with 5:23 remaining in the half.
With 2:25 left in the first half, sophomore running back Chris Setian capped off an 85-yard, eight-play drive by scoring on a four-yard run. The wild first half ended with the Tigers owning a 42-28 lead.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, freshman wide receiver Derrick Joseph return it 93 yards for a touchdown to extend the Tigers' advantage to 49-28. It marked the first time the Tigers returned a kickoff for a touchdown since Sept. 9, 1995 when Maurice Sydnor had an 89-yard return against Butler. It was only the sixth time that a Tiger returned a kickoff for a touchdown in school history.
But, the Wildcats came right back and responded when Decker scored on a five-yard run to end an 8-play, 70-yard drive with 11:39 left in the third quarter for a 49-35 margin.
However, the Tigers marched 71 yards on ten plays for their eight touchdown of the game. West capped off the drive by scoring on a two-yard run, his fourth touchdown of the game, giving Towson a 56-35 lead.
The Wildcats narrowed the gap to 56-42 with 5:04 left when freshman running back Nico Steriti scored on a three-yard run to end a 12-play, 94-yard drive.
But, the Tigers recovered the ensuing onsides kick to delay the Wildcats' hopes of a comeback.
After UNH drove deep into Towson territory in the final minutes, Smith intercepted a pass in the end zone to clinch the win.
"What I was afraid might happen did happen," said UNH Coach Sean McDonnell, who has led UNH to the NCAA FCS playoffs for the last seven years. "Rob (Ambrose) has done an unbelievable job with this program. They run the football with authority. Hats off to Towson for a remarkable turnaround."
The Tigers, who are 8-2 for the first time since the 1994 season, have positioned themselves to play for the CAA championship next week when they visit Rhode Island. Although the Tigers are tied with Maine for first place, they own the tie-breaker by virtue of a 40-30 win over Maine last week.
The Tigers have also positioned themselves for their first-ever NCAA FCS playoff berth.
"Getting to the playoffs has been a goal from the first day I got here," Ambrose said. "New Hampshire is really awesome and I tip my hat to their kids. Every alum that ever played here deep down in their hearts thought that something like this could happen. I'm grateful that we could do this."
The reigning CAA Player of the Week, West recorded his sixth straight 100-yard rushing game and became the first Tiger since 2001 to rush for over 200 yards in a single game. In addition, he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, marking the 10th time in school history that a player has rushed for over 1,000 yards.
Entering the regular season finale against Rhode Island on Saturday, West has rushed for 1,190 yards with a school-record 25 touchdowns.
Decker led the Wildcats by completing 36 of 46 passes for 389 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for 75 yards on 12 carries and scored twice. Steriti caught eight passes for 90 yards and had 10 carries for 56 yards.
The Tigers, who won only one game last season, will finish the regular season next Saturday, Nov. 19 at Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the Wildcats will end the regular season next Saturday by hosting the University of Maine, which edged Massachusetts by 32-21 on Saturday.