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Poor start, strong finish for No. 3 Towson in 44-28 win vs. No. 19 New Hampshire

Pro FootballFootballNorthwestern WildcatsPeter AthensRob Ambrose

Another big first-quarter deficit is just another day at the office for the Towson football team.

Trailing 20-3 after the first quarter, the No. 3 Tigers scored 41 unanswered points to cruise to a 44-28 win over No. 19 New Hampshire before an announced 9,511 at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson.

Towson improved to 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association with its 10th consecutive win. The Wildcats dropped to 1-3 and 0-1. After losing the first seven meetings in this series, the Tigers have won the past three.

Saturday's outcome mirrored a 35-21 victory over Stony Brook on Sept. 28. In that game, Towson rallied from a 14-0 first-quarter hole and a 21-10 deficit at halftime.

"Once again, we faced interesting adversity," coach Rob Ambrose said with a grin. "We decided to smile, work harder, get tighter and do what you're supposed to do to win a football game. I couldn't be more proud of these guys."

A dormant offense that bumbled its way through the first quarter soon exploded for what became a record-breaking day. The unit gained 731 yards, surpassing the previous program high of 670 yards during a 54-14 win over St. Francis on Oct. 26, 1996.

Junior running back Terrance West (Northwestern) rushed 28 times for 238 yards and three touchdowns. It marked the third 200-yard performance of his career, all of which have come against the Wildcats.

Fifth-year senior quarterback Peter Athens completed 22 of 33 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns. The yardage eclipsed his previous career high of 252 yards set in the team's Sept. 21 35-17 victory over North Carolina Central.

And junior wide receiver Spencer Wilkins (Mount Hebron) established career bests with seven catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

"I think, as an offense, we relaxed," Athens said. "I think that was a big part of our success. I don't think we were freaking out or anything like that. We just kept to our game plan and we were successful."

The Tigers had fallen into a similar hole the week before, trailing 14-0 after the first quarter against Stony Brook. . Their downturn was even deeper and faster Saturday. New Hampshire needed just seven plays and 1:59 to score three touchdowns and race to a 20-3 first-quarter advantage.

New Hampshire took advantage of Towson gaffes on all three scores. The Wildcats first converted a fumble by West for a 9-yard touchdown run by junior running back Nico Steriti with 13:18 left in the first quarter.

After a 37-yard field goal by Towson senior kicker Drew Evangelista, senior kicker D.J. Soven laced the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. Starting at the Wildcats' 35-yard line, junior quarterback Andy Vailas connected with junior wide receiver R.J. Harris for a 21-yard completion, then faked a handoff and scampered off right tackle for a 44-yard score. The only good news for the Tigers came when New Hampshire's subsequent 2-point conversion failed.

After another fumble by West, the Wildcats got their third touchdown courtesy of some trickery. Vailas took the shotgun snap and ran to his left, where he pitched the ball to Jared Allison. The sophomore wide receiver ran to his right, stopped and found junior tight end Harold Spears for a 29-yard touchdown pass with 6:04 left in the first quarter.

Trailing 20-3, Towson closed the gap in the second quarter. After a 50-yard touchdown run by West, a 1-yard dive by West, a 21-yard pass from Athens to junior wide receiver Spencer Wilkins and a 49-yard field goal by senior kicker D.J. Soven with no time left, the Tigers led, 27-20.

The resurgence continued in the second half, as sophomore free safety Christian Carpenter intercepted a pass on New Hampshire's first offensive play of the third quarter.

Athens capped a five-play, 40-yard drive with an 18-yard pass to sophomore fullback Emmanuel Holder. The Tigers added a 26-yard field goal by Evangelista and another 1-yard touchdown plunge by West in the third quarter to take a 44-20 lead.

Afterward, Wildcats coach Sean McDonnell could only imagine what might have been had his team protected the lead it had built in the first quarter.

"What I thought could happen, did happen," he said. "I thought we could play with these guys, get out early, show what we could do. There was a big, big swing in that second quarter with field position, and the momentum jumped. I thought it gave them a lot of hop."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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