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Defense steals the show as Towson football upsets No. 23 Villanova, 28-21

Towson Tigers quarterback Connor Frazier (4) scrambles for a first down against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the first quarter at Milan Puskar Stadium on Sept. 7, 2014
Towson Tigers quarterback Connor Frazier (4) scrambles for a first down against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the first quarter at Milan Puskar Stadium on Sept. 7, 2014 (Charles LeClaire / USA Today Sports)

The Towson football team's offense has the defense to thank for Saturday night's 28-21 upset of No. 23 Villanova.

Freshman inside linebacker Chris Tedder returned an interception 34 yards in the third quarter, and junior cornerback Romell Haley repeated the feat with an 86-yard return with 4:44 left to help the Tigers win a key Colonial Athletic Association showdown at Johnny Unitas Stadium.

With the victory, Towson improved to 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference, keeping alive its hopes of earning a berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The Tigers won for only the second time in their past eight meetings with the Wildcats, who fell to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the league. It was also Towson's first victory over a ranked opponent since Dec. 21, 2013, at No. 3 Eastern Washington.

The defense's big plays were critical as the unit returned two interceptions for scores in the same game for the first time since Devon Telp took back a pair in a 27-6 rout of Georgetown on Nov. 8, 2003. Towson had entered the weekend with just seven takeaways, tied for fewest in the CAA.

"That's something we emphasize and practice a lot, creating turnovers, trying to get defensive touchdowns because we know that can be a big momentum changer in the game," redshirt senior defensive end Jon Desir said. "So that's just something we really like to work on, and it came in the clutch today."

The Tigers sputtered on offense after scoring the first 12 points in the opening quarter. Towson mustered just 65 yards and four first downs in the second half, with senior kicker Sam Hurwitz hitting a 41-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.

"The defense played great," said redshirt senior quarterback Connor Frazier, who passed for one touchdown and ran for another. "Those two interceptions for touchdowns obviously were big. They were crucial plays in the game. It was just an all-around, great team win."

Villanova amassed 421 yards of offense and 23 first downs and held the ball for 35:56. But the Tigers shut out the Wildcats over a span of 15:52 before redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Bednarczyk found senior wide receiver Kevin Gulyas for a 4-yard touchdown with 50 seconds remaining.

Trailing 12-7 at halftime, Villanova opened the second half with the ball, but on the second play, Bednarczyk fired a low pass that went straight into Tedder's hands. Tedder, making the second straight start of his career, returned the interception for a touchdown just 44 seconds into the third quarter, the Tigers' first such score since Oct. 26, 2013.

After the 2-point conversion failed, the Wildcats needed just six plays to respond. Sophomore sophomore running back Matt Gudzak darted 35 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown, shaving the Tigers' lead to 18-14 with 11:42 left.

Hurwitz made amends for a missed extra-point attempt in the first quarter by making a 41-yard field-goal attempt with 11:25 remaining. The kick tied his longest of the season.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Wildcats marched into Towson territory, but a sack by Desir led to fourth-and-9 at the 23. Rather than call on freshman kicker Gerald Smith to attempt a 40-yard field, Villanova went for the first down.

But the Tigers pass rush forced Bednarczyk to threw the ball off his back foot and into Haley's waiting arms. Haley raced down the left sideline, putting the game out of reach with the program's fourth-longest interception return.

Bednarczyk completed 21 of 40 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns, but Villanova coach Andy Talley said the positives were obscured by the interceptions.

"He did some really nice things, but obviously the two pick-6s were the killer," Talley said of Bednarczyk, who made his fourth straight start in place of injured 2014 Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson. "I felt that really changed the momentum of the game. … You can't give anybody 14 points and expect that you're going to be good enough to win. Not with a redshirt freshman quarterback."

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