John Loch remembers the moment vividly. It was early in the 1991 football season, and a skinny freshman quarterback named Dan Crowley had been sent in from the Towson State sideline to run a series of plays.
"There's obviously some doubt in your mind. You're wondering what he [Crowley] is going to do," recalled Loch, a senior tackle who was then a sophomore.
"He announced the play clearly. Good cadence," Loch said. "Then he rolled out, completed a pass to the tight end, came back to the huddle and said, 'Let's go guys.' He didn't even blink. It wasn't like he was a freshman. It was like he'd been a quarterback his whole life."
ALoch was not far off the mark. Since he gave football a chance at age 6, Crowley has spent virtually every fall viewing the game from behind center, from Pop Warner League through a 3,000-yard passing career at DeMatha High School to the present.
Today, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound junior is the leader of one of the nation's most potent offenses, the director of perhaps the best football team in Towson State's 25-year history.
The Tigers (6-2) are guaranteed their first winning season since joining Division I-AA in 1987, and are flirting with their first national playoff berth since 1986. The main reason is an offense that has been a fan's delight and a defensive coordinator's nightmare.
Averaging 466 yards and 34.5 points, the offense has no weaknesses. The line is huge, quick and experienced. Senior running back Tony Vinson has gained 1,325 yards and continues to add to his school career rushing record. Receivers Mark Orlando and Tony Hill run disciplined routes, block well downfield and have excellent hands.
Ultimately, though, the fate of an offense falls on the shoulders of the quarterback. Crowley never has flinched at such pressure.
The Towson State coaching staff began to learn about his mettle midway through his true freshman season, when they handed Crowley the ball as the starting quarterback. They watched him throw a school-record 56 passes, nearly bringing the Tigers from behind in a 38-28 loss to Liberty with a 325-yard, three-touchdown effort. In five starts that year, he threw for 1,783 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"It sounds kind of funny, looking back, to come straight out of high school and throw 56 times in my first start," Crowley said. "I remember the first half was terrible. I was all over the place, bouncing balls off the turf. I never get nervous before a game, but back then there were a couple of games, especially that first one, when I was scared."
The scared freshman has become the cool junior whose mistakes dwindle with each week. Just ask the Delaware Blue Hens. Last week, before a roaring, hostile crowd and with the Tigers trailing by four points with two minutes left, Crowley moved them 60 yards for the touchdown that produced a 32-30 victory. It ranks among the sweetest moments in Towson State history.
"Dan was something else on that drive," coach Gordy Combs said. "I've always been amazed by his poise. Very seldom does he get rattled, and he has the ability to rally people around him because of that. I remember two years ago [when Combs took over as coach] my first player conference was with Crowley to make sure he was staying."
Crowley's decision has paid startling dividends. With the arrival of Vinson last year, Towson State ditched its pass-oriented attack in favor of more balance. Crowley switched gears smoothly and without a complaint.
This year, he has completed 106 of 187 passes (56.7 percent) for 1,578 yards, 18 touchdowns and only four interceptions, making him fifth-best in passing efficiency among I-AA quarterbacks. The Tigers' offense is ranked fourth nationally in per-game yardage.
For his career, Crowley has thrown for 5,683 yards and 48 touchdowns, one shy of the school record. And in a testament to his skills and smarts, he has averaged nearly two touchdowns per start, and his interceptions have steadily dropped. He is on track to become the school's all-time yardage leader next year.
"That stuff really doesn't matter to me," Crowley said. "I don't even know how many TDs I have, but I know I only have those four interceptions. It's a big boost. I had 22 my first year. If you're throwing interceptions, you're letting the team down. We're out there to put on a show for everybody."
Everyone has done his part. The line, superb all year, has allowed only five sacks while opening holes for Vinson, who has kept defenses honest to Crowley's benefit. And Crowley creates his share of opportunities, with his play fakes and his ability to adjust in the pocket, scramble for first downs and find secondary receivers.
"He's a better athlete than he's given credit for," Combs said. "He throws the ball well on the run. He could probably run the option if we asked him to. And he's a one-timer [in terms of taking instruction]. He'll come over to the sidelines and tell us things. Some players you listen to, some you don't. Him, you listen to."
The Tigers have believed in Crowley from the beginning, but the way he engineered late-season comebacks against Indiana (Pa.) and Northeastern last year -- to help Towson State finish 5-5 instead of 3-7 -- probably cemented their faith in him.
"He's always in competition with himself. That's why he's gotten so much better," Loch said. "I've never heard him complain about any game plans. He's just interested in the end result. Are we winning?
"He's so smart, and he's not afraid to take it into the open field and put his head down. It's the difference between having a football player as a quarterback instead of a quarterback as a football player. That makes you want to protect him more. That attitude is why we love him."