VILLANOVA, Pa. - Facing the defending national champions in their home opener is hardly the way a team would like to open its conference schedule.
But that was the exact challenge that Coach Rob Ambrose and the Tigers faced on Saturday afternoon when they played Villanova in their first Colonial Athletic Association game of the season.
In the pre-game ceremonies, the number one-ranked Wildcats celebrated their 2009 NCAA FCS championship with their players receiving their championship rings.
Then, the Wildcats (2-1, 1-0) continued their celebration when the game started, handing the Tigers (1-2, 0-1) a 43-7 loss before a crowd of 12,111 at Villanova Stadium.
The Villanova defense held a Tiger offense, which came into the game averaging 381.0 yards per game, to a total of 180 yards and forced two turnovers. Towson had only eight first downs in the game.
The Tigers scored their only touchdown of the game with 9:36 remaining in the third quarter when graduate student quarterback Bart Blanchard threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to senior Hakeem Moore. It was Moore's fourth TD reception of the season.
In the second half, Blanchard relieved Chris Hart and completed 12 of 16 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown. With Blanchard at quarterback, the Tigers accumulated 145 yards of offense.
"Villanova is good, Villanova is big and you can't make any mistakes against them," said Coach Ambrose. "To Coach (Andy) Talley's credit, he has made some subtle changes on his defense even though he has most of his players back. They make very good adjustments on defense. They may have the toughest defense in the country this year.
"I am sure that Villanova will be a strong contender for another national title," he added.
Senior quarterback Chris Whitney enjoyed another fine day for the Wildcats. While playing a little more than half the game, the first team All-CAA selection completed 9 of 12 passes for 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also ran for 44 yards on 14 carries and scored two more TD's.
"Honestly, I thought we defended them better than we did last year," Ambrose added. "However, to defend that offense, you need to tackle well. We didn't. There were several times where we had Whitney trapped in the backfield and we missed a tackle and he made a play. I guess I should be happy with our progress. Last year, we didn't get anywhere near him."
The Wildcats, who beat Towson by 49-7 on their way to the 2009 national championship, took control right from the start as they rolled to their 12th consecutive win over an NCAA FCS opponent.
After the Tigers forced a Villanova punt on the opening possession of the game, the Tigers faced a third down-and-two at their own 28-yard line. Freshman D. J. Soven came in to punt but he never got the chance. The center snap sailed way over his head and into the end zone where Soven kicked it out of the end zone for a safety, giving Villanova a 2-0 lead with 7:46 remaining in the first quarter.
"We have a first-year punter and first-year snapper," said Ambrose. "The sad thing is that if D.J. looked up, he would have realized that he could have run back to the line of scrimmage and punted. There was no rush at all. But I'm sure he was trying to keep them from scoring a touchdown."
Senior All-American Matt Szczur returned the ensuing free kick 39 yards to the Towson 37-yard line. From there, Whitney directed a 37-yard, five-play drive for the first touchdown of the game. Whitney capped off the drive when he scored on a nine-yard run around left end with 5:52 left in the first quarter. Nick Yako's conversion kick made it a 9-0 advantage for Villanova.
The Wildcats broke the game open in the second quarter, scoring 27 unanswered points and taking advantage of a pair of Tiger turnovers.
With 9:42 remaining in the first half, senior Aaron Ball, who ran for 100 yards on only eight carries in the game, broke loose for a 57-yard touchdown run, giving the Wildcats a 16-0 lead.
A 44-yard kickoff return by Moore gave the Tigers their best field position of the game. However, on the first play after the return, senior linebacker Marquis Kirkland intercepted a Hart pass and returned it to the Towson 48-yard line. Two plays later, Szczur received the direct snap and threw a perfect 44-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Dorian Wells in the corner of the end zone, upping the lead to 22-0. Yako's extra point attempt was wide right.
After the Tigers drove to the Villanova 40-yard line, they went for a first down on fourth down-and-less than one. But, Hart was stopped short and the Wildcats took over.
Whitney led another touchdown drive once Villanova got possession. The Wildcats marched 60 yards on nine plays. On third down at the Towson 22-yard line, Whitney scrambled out of pressure and threw a 22-yard touchdown to Wells, extending the lead to 28-0. Yako's extra point gave the Wildcats a 29-0 lead with 2:20 remaining in the half.
With 1:26 left in the half, the Wildcats received another great scoring opportunity. Freshman Keenan Malone recovered a fumble by Hart at the Tigers' 34-yard line. Six plays later, Whitney threw his second touchdown pass of the first half, a 17-yard screen pass to Angelo Babbaro with 41 seconds remaining in the half. Yako's conversion gave Villanova a 36-0 lead at halftime.
In a dominant first half, the Wildcats held Towson 35 yards of total offense. Villanova ran up a total of 281 yards, including 122 yards on the ground. Villanova had 14 first downs in the first half while the Tigers were held to a pair of first downs.
On the first possession of the second half, Blanchard came into the game. When he was sacked at the Towson four-yard line, Soven was forced to punt from his own end zone. His 33-yard punt gave the Wildcats a first down at the Tigers' 37-yard line. Six plays later, Whitney scored his second touchdown of the game on a one-yard run, giving the Wildcats a 43-0 lead with 10:33 left in the third quarter.
A 19-yard kickoff return by senior Justin Harris gave the Tigers a first down at their own 32-yard line. After Blanchard completed a nine-yard pass to senior tight end Ryan Hanley, he completed a long pass to Moore, who caught the ball at the Wildcats' 30-yard line and outraced several Villanova defenders for a 59-yard touchdown. When senior Nick Wallace converted, the Tigers trailed by 43-7 with 9:36 left in the quarter,
With Coach Talley substituting liberally, the Tigers had their most impressive drive of the game late in the third period. After a Dominic Scarnecchia punt backed the Tigers up at their own five-yard line, Blanchard directed the Tigers' best drive of the game. They marched down to the Wildcats' nine-yard line where the drive stalled. Wallace came on to attempt a 26-yard field goal that appeared to be a good kick. However, the officials ruled that the kick had missed and the Tigers' 86-yard, 15-play drive netted no points.
A transfer from The Citadel, Blanchard made his first appearance for the Tigers. Playing only the second half, he completed 12 of 16 passes for 144 yards. While playing only the first half, Hart completed 4 of 12 passes for 19 yards and turned the ball over twice. After averaging 261.0 yards of total offense in the first two games of the season, he was held to 40 yards by the Wildcats.
"Bart played well," admitted Ambrose. "But he also made some mistakes.
"Through the first two games, I have been very cautious to praise Chris (Hart)," he added. "In the first two games, he turned the ball over. It was frightening but it didn't really cost us too much. Today, the turnovers hurt us. I have said all along that if you cannot protect the ball, you won't play quarterback for us.
"I am sure Chris will learn from this and make the appropriate improvements," Ambrose added.
While Ball led Villanova by rushing for 100 yards, reserve quarterback Christian Culicerto ran for 46 yards on two carries. The Wildcats ran for 243 yards on 52 carries while the Tigers had 17 rushing yards on 28 attempts.
Wells was the Wildcats' top receiver with four catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns. The Wildcats threw for 162 yards while Towson had 163 passing yards.
Sophomore Tremayne Dameron ran for 21 yards on seven carries against the rugged Villanova defense. The Tigers, who averaged 221.0 rushing yards per game in their first two outings, had only one running play that netted them nine yards.
Sophomore Erron Banks led the Tigers with a career high five receptions for 32 yards while Moore caught three passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Sophomore safety Jordan Dangerfield led the Tiger defense with seven tackles while sophomore defensive end Frank Beltre made seven tackles, including one for lost yardage. Linebacker Donte Blakey also had seven tackles.
Now 1-2 on the season, the Tigers will try to get back on the winning track next week when they travel to Columbia University for a 12:30 game next Saturday.
TIGER TALES: In a matchup between the CAA leaders in all-purpose yards, Moore had 141 all-purpose yards while Szczur was held to 97 yards although he didn't play most of the second half ... Moore has now caught eight passes for 243 and four touchdowns ... He is averaging 30.3 yards per reception and has three catches of 50 yards or more.
The Tigers faced Villanova without sophomore Tom Ryan, their leading receiver ... Ryan has nine receptions for 60 yards.
Blanchard's TD pass to Moore was the Tigers' seventh touchdown pass in their first three games ... Last season, Tiger quarterbacks passed for nine touchdowns in 11 games.
The Wildcats' win over Towson was their fourth in a row over the Tigers ... Villanova now leads the series by a 5-2 margin.