NEW YORK -- Towson's day of football ended the same way it began yesterday afternoon at Columbia -- with a special teams disaster.
The Tigers' 28-13 loss before 2,325 at Wien Stadium in Manhattan was keyed by a 69-yard punt return that opened the scoring for Columbia, and a muffed kickoff return by Towson ended it.
"I didn't see the focus or attention to detail that I saw during the previous week," Towson coach Gordy Combs said.
The Tigers (3-1) put up deceptively impressive offensive numbers. They out-gained the Lions (1-1) 388 yards to 253, and starting quarterback Joe Lee threw for 295 yards, completing 28 of 56 passes. But Lee was under pressure all afternoon. He was faced with terrible field position, a few dropped passes, and a minor injury to senior running back Jason Corle, the epicenter of the offense.
Still, it was two letdowns on special teams that destroyed the Tigers' chances of moving to 4-0 for the first time since 1993. Columbia wide-out Justin Meadlin's punt return to give the Lions a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Towson responded with two field goals and a touchdown to take a 13-7 third-quarter lead, but two backbreaking plays against the Tigers came in the fourth quarter.
Columbia scored on its only sustained drive of the game to take a 14-13 lead late in the third quarter. On Towson's next possession, Lee was drilled by linebacker Jason Bivens and fumbled. Columbia recovered at the Tigers' 29, where Lions tailback Norman Hayes capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run for a 21-13 lead with 5: 21 left in regulation.
The Tigers would have had a chance to drive for a tying score, but Darnell Evans fumbled away the ensuing kickoff. Columbia's Chris Schaffer scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone. Later in the game Evans sustained another injury to the anterior cruciate ligament he tore last season.
"We preach special teams," Combs said. "That's what makes this so disappointing."
The Tigers' high-powered offense was slowed by an aggressive Columbia defense, which came after Lee all day. "We saw a lot of stunts and blitzes," Lee said. "Sometimes you click, sometimes you don't."
The Tigers didn't. A key reason was the absence of Corle, who suffered a high ankle sprain in their first series, and finished with just 3 yards rushing on five carries.
One of the few bright spots for Towson was junior free safety Ricky Crestwell, a Temple Hills native and graduate of Potomac High who intercepted two first-half passes, his fourth and fifth of the season. Crestwell's first interception set up a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 10-7 lead.
Columbia quarterback Mark Stoutenberg threw a poor pass that Crestwell picked off and returned 32 yards to set up a short Towson score. Lee dumped a pass to Corle in the flat, and the senior tailback did the rest, juking Columbia free safety Jarrett Keys to finish the 29-yard score.
But Lee appeared shaky with out the security of Corle in his backfield. He engineered just one long drive and was nearly intercepted three times.
Combs said he has to take part of the responsibility for his team's lack of preparedness. Some players said the Tigers may have been resting on their early-season laurels.
"Coach said you've only got to get up 11 times in 365 days," Tigers safety Dennis Cligett said. "Maybe we were thinking we were pretty good. But the concentration we needed certainly wasn't there."
Next for Towson
Opponent: Holy Cross
Site: Minnegan Stadium
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Yesterday: Lost to Harvard, 25-17