The uncomfortable wait begins for the Towson football team.
The No. 15 Tigers, who had been tied for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association as recently as the early afternoon of Nov. 3, must now see whether their resume is strong enough to earn one of the 14 at-large spots in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs after suffering a 38-17 loss to No. 7 James Madison before an announced 7,208 at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson on Saturday.
Towson, which dropped to 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the CAA, was hoping to avoid leaving its fate in the hands of the selection committee by upending the 2016 national champion Dukes (8-3, 6-2), but is left dealing with an uncertain future.
“If we won this game, it’s a walk,” coach Rob Ambrose said. “Then we’re just figuring out what team we’re not playing next week because we’re all probably hanging out and getting fat at Thanksgiving and watching everybody else play. But now it’s counting on smart people to evaluate our resume and agree that we are one of the top 24 teams in the country and that we’ve proven that time and time again.”
The 24-team bracket will be unveiled on a selection show scheduled to air on ESPNU on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Until then, the players will be left wondering what might have been.
“It’s kind of weird because in the locker room, you don’t know whether to say goodbye to the seniors,” said redshirt junior quarterback Tom Flacco, who completed 31 of 50 passes for 372 yards and two touchdowns. “I’m definitely not saying goodbye to them. I was saying to the guys, ‘Hey, I’ll see you guys tomorrow.’ If something crazy happens, then I’ll get all emotional. But I didn’t want to say thank you today to anybody. We’re still going in my mind. For the next 18 hours or whatever it is, I’m just going to hang out and wait and see what happens.”
Ambrose described the remaining hours until the field is released.
“Let’s be honest: There’s not a player in that locker room that’s going to go to bed tonight,” he said. “There’s not a coach, there’s not a player, there’s none of us — we’re all just going to sit there and stare at the wall. We’ll watch some games haphazardly, but we’re all just holding our breath until 12:30 tomorrow.”
The Tigers, who are seeking their first appearance in the FCS postseason since 2013, could have bypassed any ambiguity by defeating James Madison. But the Dukes offense proved to be too powerful, gaining 395 yards on the ground and scoring on four of six possessions in the first half to build a 24-10 advantage by halftime.
Graduate student Cardon Johnson ripped off a 76-yard touchdown run on James Madison’s third snap of its opening offensive series to stake the team to a 7-0 lead with 8:27 left in the first quarter. And redshirt junior quarterback Ben DiNucci added two touchdowns in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, Towson struggled when it had the ball. After assuming a 10-7 lead on the strength of a 2-yard scoring pass from Flacco to redshirt junior wide receiver Shane Leatherbury with 5:01 left in the first quarter and a 26-yard field goal from junior kicker Aidan O’Neill to open the second frame, the offense gained a total of 51 yards on its final three possessions of the half, did not score a point, and ended its final series with Flacco getting stripped by junior defensive end John Daka.
The Dukes promptly converted that turnover into a 37-yard field goal by senior kicker Tyler Gray as time expired for the 24-10 lead at halftime.
The Tigers’ troubles on offense continued into the second half as they went scoreless on four drives, punting three times and turning the ball over on downs once.
James Madison punched in its fourth rushing touchdown of the day on a 15-yard scamper by senior running back Trai Sharp with 1:22 left in the third quarter.
Sharp compiled 107 yards on 15 attempts at that point to become the first Dukes player to reach the 100-yard mark this season. He was joined in the fourth quarter by Johnson, who gained a season-high 162 yards on 13 carries, and DiNucci, who added 104 yards on 14 attempts and completed 15 of 22 passes for 181 yards. James Madison had three 100-yard rushers in a game for only the second time in school history.
The Dukes finished one game behind No. 16 Maine, which held off No. 14 Elon, 27-26, to claim the conference title and the automatic berth in the FCS playoffs. But James Madison can feel assured that its season will be extended at least one more week.
“I think we’re one of the top teams in the country,” said coach Mike Houston, who guided the program to last year’s FCS title game. “I think this team has got a legitimate chance to make a run.”
So does Houston think Towson warrants a spot in the FCS postseason?
“No doubt,” he said firmly. “I think Towson will be one of the top 16. I think they’re a team that can make some noise.”
» After scoring at least one touchdown in each of Towson’s first nine games of the regular season, redshirt running back Shane Simpson did not reach the end zone in his last two games.
» James Madison improved to 21-6-1 in the overall series and has won 10 of the past 11 meetings, including five of the past six at Towson. The Tigers’ only victory in that span occurred on Nov. 23, 2013.