By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today columnist
College Sporting News
While not exactly the sticks, Towson is an escape from the city of Baltimore, and Terrance West would have made Horace Greeley proud as he has led the growth and remarkable turnaround that has been helmed by coach Rob Ambrose. Along with youngsters at positions all over the field, it’s clear that the group expected to find opportunity at the long-maligned program.
New Hampshire at Towson
With the two most prolific offenses on the field at Unitas Stadium, most people were expecting a shootout but they ended up getting a game that would have made old Yankee conference scorekeepers blush. I don’t know if Towson had any cheerleaders doing the traditional pushups after each score, but it would have taken 252 of them to get through the 56-42 scorefest.
The Tigers and Wildcats came into the game tied with Maine for first place in the CAA and this game would go a long way to deciding the CAA crown. Towson had never beaten UNH in seven tries, but they’d never had Terrance West on their side. The freshman continued his remarkable season with 261 yards on 23 carries along with four touchdowns that pushed his FCS-leading total to a remarkable 25 to go with 1,190 yards rushing. For his efforts, the youngster won his second straight CAA Offensive Player of the Week Award, his sixth conference honor this season and was also named to the Walter Payton Award watch list, a rarity for a freshman.
As for the game itself, Dontra Peters put UNH on the board early, but the crowd of 8,366 at Unitas Stadium got going as Towson responded with 21 straight points in a matter of minutes. First, West went 72 yards for a touchdown on Towson’s third offensive play. Then, after turning New Hampshire over on downs at their own 44, quarterback Grant Enders hit James Oboh for a 56 yard touchdown pass. When Tye Smith picked off Kevin Decker a few plays later and returned it 45 yards, the home team was up 21-7 and the tone of the game had been set.
"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.”
From then on, each time the Wildcats scored, the Tigers answered and, after taking a 35-14 lead with an incredible 9:38 left in the first half, New Hampshire never got closer than two scores the rest of the way despite putting four more touchdowns on the board.
Included in the Towson scoring the rest of the way was another long run by West, this time from 69 yards in the second quarter and a 93 yard touchdown return by freshman Derrick Joseph to open the second half giving Towson a 49-28 lead and shortcircuiting any ideas the Wildcats had of a comeback. The return was the first of its kind in more than 16 years for the Tigers and helped get Joseph named the CAA Special Teams Player of the Week.
New Hampshire cut the deficit to fourteen points twice in the second half but could never make a big play to get closer. The last chance ended with another Tye Smith interception, this time in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Smith ended with three picks to go with a third quarter fumble recovery, part of a day that earned the freshman CAA Rookie of the Week honors.
Despite the picks, Decker went 36 of 46 for 389 yards and one touchdown while running for 75 on 12 carriers. His only real mistake was the early interception that was returned for a touchdown but he might have been suffering the effects of a big hit on the preceding play. The senior will close out his career next week against Maine and then hope for a playoff berth.
“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.”
That turnaround has a Tigers team that went 1-10 last year currently at 8-2 and one win away from a CAA title and the automatic bid to the playoffs.
“Getting to the playoffs has been a goal from the first day I got here,” Ambrose said. “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."
One of the main reasons it has been possible is a young offensive line that has formed a dominant unit. Coach Ambrose explained that he and his staff wanted to recruit an intelligent unit that could come together and learn schemes quickly while making adjustments on the fly. The group has done so and more and as this game recap shows, the young talent is making pays in positions all over the field.
As Ambrose wonders, “I shudder to think what the future holds for us given the level of play we got from such a young group of kids.”
Manifest Destiny indeed.
Old Dominion at William & Mary
As I mentioned in the preview last week, this game has been in the back of William & Mary fans minds since Old Dominion announced they were forming a program. The threat of the program just down the road was clear but the historic program in Williamsburg figured to have an edge at least for a few years. Last Saturday in Williamsburg, the College tried to salvage the season by taking down the Monarchs, but the same problems that have plagued them all season ultimately stood in the way.
In a seesaw game that featured more than 1,000 yards of total offense (with W&M holding a narrow 503-500 advantage), the Tribe made the first statement, stopping ODU on downs before driving into Monarch territory. The Tribe looked to jump out to a 7-0 lead but freshman receiver Tre McBride fumbled into the end zone from the one and ODU recovered to escape the threat.
The teams spent the rest of the first half trading touchdowns as scoring runs by Angus Harper and Taylor Heinecke alternated with 25- and 5-yard runs by Jonathan Grimes. The senior had another terrific day, amassing a school-record 331 all-purpose yards and breaking his own single-season record with 2,223.
Both teams had chances late in the half, but ODU kicker Jarod Brown missed wide right from 50-yards and had a 57-yard try blocked, while W&M’s Drake Kuhn had his 35-yard try blocked as the Tribe special teams continued to struggle with getting kicks off cleanly.
The teams returned to trading scores to start the second half as Brent Caprio, starting his second game for Jimmye Laycock, hit DJ Mangas from 4 yards for a 21-14 lead. The sophomore signal-caller was 20-28 for 245 yards in a solid performance.
Unfortunately for the Senior Day crowd at Zable Stadium, the Monarchs quickly evened the score again with a little trickeration as wide receiver Antonio Vaughan hit Reid Evans with a 27-yard touchdown pass and it was 21-21.
Not to be outdone, the Tribe later scored on an epic 17-play drive that took 9:13 off the clock. The 80 play march was led by Grimes who had 10 rushes and a catch for 67 yards. The senior workhorse totaled 38 carries on the day for 227 yards and his third touchdown from two yards out capped the possession and gave the home team a 28-21 lead. It was clear that Jimmye Laycock’s squad was putting everything it had into sending out Grimes a winner and sending a message to the team from Norfolk.
But, as has been the case for much of the second half of the season, the Tribe defense could not get a stop when it needed one, allowing the Monarchs to take a short field and go 58 yards for another tie at 28.
Kuhn made a 31-yarder with 6:44 remaining for a 31-28 lead, but again the young Monarch offense would not be denied and scored its third straight touchdown. Facing arguably their biggest test of the season, Heinicke led a 10-play 74-yard drive that ended with Harper scoring from seven yards out.
Down 35-31, the Tribe moved inside the Old Dominion 40 twice in the final two minutes. However, the struggles at quarterback that William & Mary has seen all season appeared again, with Caprio intercepted on both drives, first at the 23 and then at the ODU 8-yard line to ice the game with 22 seconds left. Freshman cornerback Eriq Lewis had both picks for the Monarchs and also forced the goalline fumble early in the game. For his efforts, he was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Week.
Ultimately, it was the second straight entertaining affair in what promises to be a tremendous new CAA rivalry.
Coach Bobby Wilder was thrilled to get out with a victory. “Great college football game and a great win to finish 9-2. Neither defense could get a handle on the other team’s offense and the three turnovers were the difference.”
Massachusetts at Maine
In all honesty, I can make the case that the most interesting thing to happen to UMass football this year has been the emergence of Victor Cruz, the undrafted free agent who has become a reliable target for Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Outside of that, it has been a forgettable season for the team that is leaving the CAA for “greener pastures” in the MAC. However, as I said a few weeks ago, they would have a chance to impact the playoff race this year and they did that by effectively knocking out Delaware a few weeks back. The Minutemen had another chance on Saturday, but in one of the strangest games of the season, failed to knock off Maine up in Orono.
Jack Cosgrove said this week that last year’s weaknesses have become this year’s strengths and the resilience of this group, especially in coming from behind has been impressive. When Kellen Pagel wasn’t cleared to play and Brandon Hill was still banged up, Coach Morris and the Minutemen had to turn to third-stringer Ricky Pendergast, who had one day of preparation for this one. However, Pendergast embraced the opportunity and led the Minutemen on two first-half touchdown drives, the second one of just 24 yards after a blocked punt, to give the visitors a 14-10 lead at halftime. When Shane Vivieros picked off Warren Smith on the third play of the second half and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown, the Minutemen had a 21-10 lead and looked primed for another CAA road win.
This had been a funny year up in Orono, as a senior group of Black Bears has led this team to national prominence and into the thick of the CAA title hunt. Along the way, they’ve pulled out some impressive road wins, most notably when they beat James Madison on a two-point conversion play in the final minute. Faced with another second half deficit in a must win game, the team rallied again, but in unusual fashion.
The sequence was crazy. UMass, up 21-10, missed a 30 yard field goal. Maine followed with a field goal to cut the lead to 21-13. With under a minute left in the 3rd quarter, the Maine defense made a play that turned the game and maybe saved the season.
On 3rd and 6 from the Maine 29, Pendergast dropped to pass and was hit at the Maine 40 and fumbled. Troy Russell recovered for the home team and rumbled 60 yards for the touchdown. Despite the failure to convert the two-point try, Maine was back in the game at 21-19 and had the momentum.
UMass drove into Maine territory again but went on 4th and 5 from the Maine 29 and failed when a Pendergast pass fell incomplete.
Looking to take control, Maine took 15 plays and 7:24 off the clock to get Brian Harvey into field goal range but his second miss of the game from 29 yards left the Black Bears still trailing by two with five and a half minutes left. But just as they did against JMU and Richmond, the Maine defense made a play. Instead of grinding the clock and playing defense, UMass put the game in Pendergast’s hands and he was picked off by Arron Achey, who returned the interception to the UMass 14.
After two Pushaun Brown runs, quarterback Warren Smith ran it in from six yards to give Maine a 25-21 lead. Another two–point conversion failed and the Minutemen got good field position after a short kickoff before moving into Maine territory again. However, another 4th down attempt by Pendergast fell incomplete. Undeterred, the UMass defense stiffened and forced a punt, although it was downed at the UMass one yard line.
With one last chance with 1:10 to play, Pendergast dropped back and fumbled while being hit by Russell. When Michael Cole fell on the ball in the end zone, the lead was 32-21 and the home fans could finally breathe easy. For the forced fumble and earlier return, Russell was named CAA Defensive Player of the Week.
Taking a closer look at the game is incredible. Before the last drive when they were down two scores inside of a minute, UMass had the ball on offense 12 times. They scored two touchdowns. They missed two field goals from 30 and 42 yards. They turned the ball over on downs three times at the Maine 27, 29 and 42. They fumbled at the Maine 29, the Maine 40 and on their own goalline, the latter two were returned for touchdowns. And they threw the interception at their own 28 that led to the go-ahead score. So, behind a third-string quarterback, the Minutemen had four conventional turnovers, three more on downs and two missed field goals, yet had the ball at the Maine 39 with 2:30 to play and needing a touchdown to win. They didn’t punt in the second half but Maine scored the last 22 points. All in all, a thrilling, strange, fascinating game and ultimately a critical win for Maine. But a good one? Not really.
Richmond at Delaware
On Senior Day/Homecoming at Delaware Stadium, the Blue Hens took advantage of a Richmond Spiders team trying to finish out a once-promising but now lost season. The star of the 24-10 Delaware win was sophomore Andrew Pierce, but it was an offensive line led by four seniors that led the way for him to gain 215 yards on 34 carriers.
“Our line was great tonight,” said Pierce. “We knew our guys would come out with a lot of emotion because of Senior Day and I knew we would have a good day running the ball.”
Delaware jumped up 7-0 in the first when Pierce finished off a seven-play, 57-yard drive with a 1-yard run for his first score of the day. Richmond reached the red zone on its next two drives, but could only Wil Kamin had a 28-yarder blocked after making a 22-yarder. When Tim Donnelly scored on a one-yard sneak, the Blue Hens were staked to a 14-3 lead that they took into halftime.
Delaware seemingly put the game away with a 15-play, 97-yard drive that took 7:57 of the second quarter and Pierce finished off for his second touchdown of the day and a 21-3 lead. Pierce went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season and moved into fourth place on the all-time UD rushing list with 2,825 yards, a remarkable achievement in less than two full seasons. Senior linemen Gino Gradkowski, Rob McDowell, Will Nagle, and Shea Allard led the way as Delaware amassed their second best rushing total of the season with 249 total yards.
The Delaware defense also had a strong day as they forced four turnovers and sacked Aaron Corps four times. Travis Hawkins got things started with an interception on Richmond’s first offensive play and Quincy Barr finished things off by forcing a fumble on the Delaware 31 with 3:03 left that put the game away.
Turnovers have been our Achilles heel all year and it really hurt us again today,” said Richmond head coach Wayne Lineburg. “You have to take care of the ball and certainly Delaware did a better job of that today.”
The highlight of the day for the Spiders was when Corps hit Tre Gray down the right sideline for a 38-yard scoring pass with 7:35 left. The wide receiver had another sterling day, catching nine passes for 126 yard and a touchdown, going over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, becoming just the third receiver in school history to do so. Gray owns the career marks for receiving yards (3,017) and catches (233), as well as the single-season catches record (85) and he will head into his final career regular season game this weekend just 13 yards shy of the Spiders’ single-season receiving mark of 1,115 by Rod Boothes in 1992.
Maine 6-1 8-2
Towson 6-1 8-2
Old Dominion 6-2 9-2
New Hampshire 5-2 7-3
Delaware 4-3 6-4
James Madison 4-3 6-4
Massachusetts 3-4 5-5
William & Mary 2-5 4-6
Rhode Island 2-5 3-7
Villanova 1-6 2-8
Richmond 0-7 3-7
CAA Title Chase
Towson win + Maine loss = Towson outright title and CAA auto bid
Maine win + Towson loss = Maine outright title and CAA auto bid
Maine/Towson win = Co-champions and Towson auto bid (head-to-head win)
Maine/Towson loss = Four way tie with UNH and ODU that results in Towson getting the auto bid due to wins against all three co-champs
Towson is a lock. Given the wins over Maine, UNH and ODU, the Tigers will certainly be in the field. However, a win at URI should put them in line for a seed and would guarantee a home game in the least.
In previous years, it was a safe assumption that any CAA team with 7 wins would get a strong look for the playoffs. However, the CAA is not as deep this year and is currently ranked the #3 conference in the GPI. Given that, while I think 4 teams will ultimately get in, there are no sure things. Old Dominion is a good example. While the Monarchs are 9-2, they played a poor non-conference schedule. On top of that, they didn’t play UNH or Maine in conference play. With losses to Towson and Delaware, the Monarchs best win was at home against a JMU team without its suspended quarterback. As such, it’s hard to find a quality win to hang an at-large berth on. I think the Monarchs get in, but it’s not a total lock.
If Maine wins this Saturday, they will be at least co-champs and 9-2 and will be in. However, with a loss they are in a similar situation as ODU. They would have lost to UNH and Towson and, having missed ODU and W&M in conference, their best win was in overtime at JMU. A win over NEC champ Albany would help, but I could see the Black Bears slipping to a first round game.
Then there’s New Hampshire. Beat Maine and they’re in. Lose to Maine and they finish 7-4, squarely on the bubble. That would mean two losses to close the season and their best CAA win over a banged-up JMU team. Could the early-season victory against Patriot League champ Lehigh be enough to sway the committee?
I know JMU and Delaware are trying to make cases, but unfortunately, both arguments have holes. The JMU case is basically that they would have been better if Thorpe hadn’t been suspended. However, a 7-4 finish with losses to UNH, Maine and ODU won’t excite the committee. Not sure the win over Liberty in non-conference play can carry the day.
As for the Blue Hens, they actually have a marquee win over Towson, but will only finish with 6 D-I wins if they beat Villanova and have losses to UMass and, yikes, Rhode Island. Tough to slip into the field without chaos.
MY TOP 25
1: Montana State Bobcats
2: Sam Houston State Bearkats
3: Towson Tigers
4: Georgia Southern Eagles
5: North Dakota State Bison
6: Northern Iowa Panthers
7: Montana Grizzlies
8: Maine Black Bears
9: Lehigh Mountain Hawks
10: Appalachian State Mountaineers
11: Old Dominion Monarchs
12: New Hampshire Wildcats
13: Wofford Terriers
14: Liberty Flames
15: Illinois State Redbirds
16: Harvard Crimson
17: Central Arkansas Bears
18: Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens
19: Youngstown State Penguins
20: James Madison Dukes
21: Indiana State Sycamores
22: Furman Paladins
23: Stony Brook Seawolves
24: Albany Great Danes
25: Portland State Vikings
MY PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Central Arkansas @ Illinois St.
Winner @ Montana State
New Hampshire @ North Dakota State
Tenn-Tech @ Liberty
Winner @ Towson
Wofford @ Lehigh
Norfolk St. @ Old Dominion
Winner @ Georgia Southern
Maine @ Appalachian State
Albany @ Youngstown St.
Winner @ Sam Houston State
Montana @ Northern Iowa
"Last seven quarters we’ve really played well on defense. Huge boost getting Justin Thorpe back. Just a heck of an athlete. Still struggled on the offensive line because of the injuries but they played better. Had a lot of respect for Rhode Island. Best 3-6 team in the country. Had led some good teams in the 4th quarter. Knew they would struggle some on the road, but we didn’t turn the ball over which really helped us. Great night with another packed stadium. A lot of fun when you win.
Told the team it would be tight for the playoffs. More at-larges than there used to be but there are no guarantees even if we get a win. I think every coach in the league would put us in if we win. Our strength of schedule was very solid. Unknown factor is how the committee will handle the quarterback suspension. If you look at our four losses and the circumstances involved, very difficult not to put us in the tournament."
THIS WEEK’S GAMES
(Old Dominion finished the regular season)
William & Mary at Richmond
For the first time in several years the Capital Cup will not have anything at stake but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to play for. Both teams would like to close disappointing season by getting a win in the oldest rivalry in the South. For Richmond coach Wayne Linnenberg, he’d like to pick up a victory in what could be his last game as head coach if the rumors prove to be true. Jimmye Laycock has no such worries but I’m sure that the whole William & Mary program would like to see Jonathan Grimes go out a winner. Spider quarterback Aaron Corp would also like to close his college career with a victory. In the end, I expect a somewhat sloppy game between a physically battered Richmond team and an emotionally spent Tribe squad with the visitors doing enough to pull one out.
Tourist Town Tribe 20 Capitol Critters 17
Delaware at Villanova
When they announced that the Battle of the Blue would be played in Chester, PA at the home of MLS’ Philadelphia Union, it sounded like a great venue to close the season with one of the CAA’s intense rivalries. However, given the struggles for Villanova this year and Delaware not likely being playoff-bound, the game will not have the magnitude of recent years. Still, the Blue Hens are still smarting from last year’s loss when Matt Szczur returned from injury to inspire a double-overtime victory. It didn’t keep the Blue Hens from a run to the FCS championship game, but listening to KC Keeler this week, you can tell that Delaware wants some payback. Andy Talley has done a nice job this year keeping his team working hard, but despite the recent improvement behind quarterback Colony, I think Delaware will stayed focused and try to at least give the selection committee something to think about.
Blue Hens 24 Blue Cats 17
James Madison at Massachusetts
Speaking of trying to give the committee fits, JMU will look to get to 7-4 with a win on the road in UMass’ final CAA game. Coach Morris is hoping to have Kellen Pagel back this week against a formidable Dukes pass rush and UMass will need him to have a chance to beat Mickey Matthews squad. The Dukes offense showed life last week with the return of Justin Thorpe and his leadership should make the difference in a physical battle in Amherst.
Desperate Dukes 24 Melancholy Minutemen 20
Towson at Rhode Island
As I covered earlier, the Tigers control their destiny for the CAA title and would likely be in line for a seed with a win. The Tigers offense behind Terrance West is a machine at this point, but they need to be careful not to get complacent heading into this week’s game in Kingston, RI. True, the Rams have had a tough year, but they are 7-2 at home the last couple of years and have knocked off Delaware and William & Mary in recent weeks at Meade Stadium. They will be looking to close a disappointing season with a win and erase the bad taste from last week’s egg-laying at JMU. However, coach Rob Ambrose made it very clear that his Tigers will only be focused on this game, not all the possibilities that go with it. Without many notable seniors on the field, look for the Towson youngsters to ultimately be too much for Coach Trainer’s gridders. Titled Tigers 34 Humbled Horns 20
GAME OF THE WEEK
Maine at New Hampshire
It’s tough to measure just how much is on the line in this one. Both teams can still be CAA co-champs and Maine could win the outright title with a Towson loss. Also, although Maine could still get in with a loss, both teams will feel a lot better about their chances with a win. Plus, add in the Bryce Cowell musket and it’s become a rivalry game more important than any seen in northern New England in a long time. Jack Cosgrove and Sean McDonnell played each other as undergrads at their respective school and both understand what’s at stake here. With senior quarterbacks guiding both teams, there’s plenty of veteran experience leading these two teams into the biggest game of the season. I know hockey season has started, but hopefully Cowell Stadium will see a capacity crowd this Saturday.
As for the game, New Hampshire is still trying to figure out how they put up 42 points and lost by two scores last weekend at Towson. A banged-up Pushaun Brown is not Terrance West, but he can still wreak havoc on a suspect New Hampshire defense. Warren Smith has shown the ability to make big plays as well when given the opportunity. I think the big question is which Maine team shows up in the first half. The Black Bears have made a habit of sluggish first halves followed by second stanza comebacks, but it’s one thing to rally against offensively challenged teams and another to fight from behind against Kevin Decker and his potent receiving corps.
The final regular season game of the week is the toughest game to pick of the year. I think the Black Bears have a little better balance and a defense more capable of making a big play, but the home field advantage and a must-win situation gives the incentive edge to the Wildcats. I’ve been leaning towards the Wildcats all week, but something tells me Maine is going to come up with a surprising win.
Maine Musketeers 30 Worried Wildcats 27
As always, any questions, comments, scouting reports and thoughts are welcome at CAAtoday@yahoo.com.
Enjoy the final weekend and let’s get ready for the playoffs!