NORFOLK, Va.—There were just over three minutes left, but Old Dominion fans already could smell the blood of another football victim at Ballard Stadium.
And why not? The 22nd-ranked Monarchs led by 11 and appeared to have already thwarted No. 23 Towson's best efforts to reply. Surely, only a few miracles could save the Tigers now, like making a leaping 2-point-conversion catch in the back of the end zone off a pass from a receiver, recovering an onside kick, converting on fourth-and-29 and scoring a touchdown, and recording their only takeaway in the final minute. You know, crazy stuff like that.
"Wow," Tigers coach Rob Ambrose said after Towson (5-1, 3-0) won Saturday's Colonial Athletic Association thrill ride, 39-35. "I've never been more proud of a group of guys than I am at this moment."
The Monarchs (5-2, 2-2) appeared to have seized command late in the third quarter. With Old Dominion clinging to a 28-24 lead, safety Carvin Powell snuffed out a Towson drive by intercepting a pass on the ODU goal line.
On the next play, Monarchs quarterback Taylor Heinicke bought time out of his own end zone until he found wide receiver Nick Mayers, who had slipped behind his defender. Mayers caught Heinicke's pass about 10 yards downfield and dashed down the left sideline.
Receiver Prentice Gill came from the other side of the field to provide a blocking escort. When Mayers was stripped of the ball at Tigers' 3-yard line, Gill tracked the loose ball down in the back of the end zone to boost ODU's advantage to 35-24.
The Monarchs' momentum continued when they recovered an onside kick. Two players later, Heinicke fired a 40-yard pass to a wide-open Antonio Vaughan in the end zone. But Vaughan dropped the pass, and the Monarchs wouldn't threaten to score the rest of the game.
"I thought we had it in the bag," Heinicke said. "I mean, we knew we still had to play. But an 11-point lead, three minutes to play …"
Towson, meanwhile, was about to find another gear.
The Tigers' improbable comeback began with 3:13 left when quarterback Grant Enders scored from 8 yards to trim ODU's lead to 35-30, and wide-out Leon Kinnard (Loyola) lobbed an option pass to tight end Mike Evans to get the Tigers to within a field goal.
Towson's D.J. Soven fed ODU its own medicine with an expertly executed onside kick, booting the ball so it skidded along the ground before taking a huge hop. ODU's Mitch Castleberry handled the hop, but the Tigers hit Castleberry and jarred the ball free. Towson's Gerrard Sheppard recovered, and with 3:09 left, the Tigers were in business again.
"That was a NFL kick," Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder said. "Just a phenomenal kick."
It didn't seem as though it would matter when the Tigers lost 19 yards on their next three plays. On the second of those plays, Enders was shaken up while being sacked by defensive tackle Ronnie Cameron and had to sit out the next snap.
When Enders returned, the Tigers were facing fourth-and-29 from their own 37. The quarterback escaped a blitzing Monarch, fled the pocket and spied receiver Tom Ryan near the first-down sticks. Ryan was surrounded by four defenders, but he made the catch, and as the Monarchs collided with each other, Ryan broke free down the right sideline, twisted out of one last-ditch tackle attempt and dove into the end zone.
"I should have batted the ball down, but I went for the interception," said Powell, one of players trying to deny Ryan. "And the quarterback threw a top-10 ESPN play."
The Monarchs had 1:05 to work with when they got the ball back, but consecutive sacks by Towson forced them into third-and-20. The Tigers sealed the victory when linebacker Kenton Powell picked off Heinicke's desperation pass with 15 seconds to go.
Enders completed 24 of 37 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, and Terrance West rushed for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns for Towson.