The Towson football team's penchant for overcoming early turnovers and big deficits did not materialize this time.
The Tigers, ranked third in the Football Championship Subdivision, fumbled three times in the first quarter Saturday night, and No. 15 Villanova turned each mistake into a touchdown en route to a 45-35 victory before an announced 10,234 at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson.
“It's a tough one,” Tigers coach Rob Ambrose said. “It hurts, but we'll survive. The goal is still in sight.”
The Tigers committed five turnovers and surrendered the most points since a 51-17 loss to Indiana on Sept. 2, 2010, a span of 40 games. Junior running back Terrance West (Northwestern), who entered the weekend ranked fourth in the FCS with 149.3 yards per game, added two touchdowns to his nation-leading total, but was limited to 61 yards on 15 carries.
Sophomore quarterback John Robertson was masterful for the Wildcats, completing 17 of 18 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns and rushing a career-high 32 times for 150 yards and three scores. His first incompletion did not occur until there were nearly 12 minutes left in the game, and Villanova (4-2, 3-0 Colonial Athletic Association) did not punt until the fourth quarter.
The Tigers (6-1, 2-1) scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns — the second after recovering an onside kick — in a 79-second span, but could not bounce back from a 38-14 halftime deficit.
The 24-point deficit was the program's largest since trailing New Hampshire 31-3 at half on Nov. 20, 2010.
“We're always going to fight and come back, but you can't continually turn the ball over and give them points,” Ambrose said. “We had a great conversation about roles, and when you step inside the white lines, it has to be on, and it doesn't matter who your opponent is. You've got to turn it up. Our guys really felt focused about doing just that, and then we fumbled the kickoff and had a tipped pass. Truth be told, the ball has to bounce your way every now and then, but tonight it didn't bounce our way very often at all. It bounced in their direction quite a lot.”
Junior Derrick Joseph was stripped of the ball on the opening kickoff by freshman defensive back Jason Ceneus, and junior defensive back Shane Harris recovered the fumble at the Tigers' 20-yard line. It then took Robertson just two plays to find sophomore running back Gary Underwood wide-open on a circle route down the left sideline 57 seconds into the game.
On Towson's second offensive play, quarterback Peter Athens' pass was intercepted by outside linebacker Joey Harmon.
Villanova's ensuing drive lasted 12 plays, the last a 2-yard run off left tackle by Robertson for a 14-0 lead.
With the ball back, Athens hit junior wide receiver Spencer Wilkins (Mount Hebron) for a significant gain, but Wilkins fumbled after a hit by junior free safety Joe Sarnese. Sophomore safety Cameron McCurry pounced on the loose ball at the Tigers' 44.
The Wildcats needed seven plays to find the end zone again, with running back Kevin Monangai scoring on a 1-yard plunge.
“We really capitalized on the turnovers early,” Wildcats coach Andy Talley said. “We knew they had been in turnover mode early, and we thought that if we could get ahead, we'd be in control early.”
Towson struck back quickly, though. Athens connected with Wilkins on a slant at the 36, and Wilkins raced the remaining 64 yards down the sideline.
Villanova responded with a 12-play, 74-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard jump pass from Robertson to junior tight end Earnest Pettway 59 seconds into the second quarter.
Joseph returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
The Wildcats answered with a 16-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 4-yard run by Robertson. A 21-yard field goal from kicker Mark Hamilton gave them the 38-14 halftime edge.