Towson came into its first football playoff game in 25 years with a banged-up defense and a star tailback who had fallen into Coach Rob Ambrose's doghouse since the Tigers finished the regular season two weeks ago by winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship.
That combination -- along with Lehigh's duo of senior quarterback Chris Lum and junior wide receiver Ryan Spadola -- proved costly for Towson in a 40-38 defeat to the Patriot League champion before the first sellout crowd (11,196) in school history at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
But neither the defense nor freshman tailback Terrance West were involved in what turned out to be the game's crucial play.
A safety with a little over five minutes remaining broke the last of six ties, and Towson (9-3) couldn't get its offense back on the field after the subsequent free kick. Attempting to fool Lehigh (11-1) with a naked bootleg call deep in his team's territory, Ambrose watched as sophomore quarterback Grant Enders was sacked in the end zone on second-and-9 from the Towson 9-yard line.
"It was a bad call on my part," Ambrose said of the bootleg, on which Enders faked a handoff to West but was tackled by Lehigh's Tom Bianchi. "You guys want to go back to the Maryland game, when we ran a naked from inside the end zone there, too, for 20 (yards). Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. We didn't get this far by being vanilla. We're not going to change now."
Said Enders, who overcame a shaky start to keep the Tigers tied or ahead for most of the second half, "I think they just had our number on that play. I wish I could have made a move to avoid that."
The loss ended a turnaround season for the Tigers, who had won three games in Ambrose's first two years, including 1-10 last season. It also ended with West (Northwestern) being held to 52 yards on 11 carries, more than 70 yards below his season's average. West did score two touchdowns for Towson.
Ambrose denied speculation on the team's radio broadcast that West had a leg injury, saying that West had not practiced very well the past 10 days and that Lehigh's defense was geared to stop the leading scorer in FCS by stacking the box. The Tigers rushed for season-low 125 yards on 38 carries.
"The kid's going to be amazing, I do believe that," Ambrose said of West. "But he's a freshman and as such, he's going to do and say and act and practice as a freshman. Every guy on this team from top to bottom has talent. Every guy on this team gets what they earn, good and bad. Before we had a bunch of injuries, Terrance was just a guy on this team getting some reps just like everybody else."
The Tigers also went into the game with several key injuries, including middle linebacker Danzel White, backup middle linebacker Kyle Polk and center Doug Shaw (Loyola Blakefield). They had a hard time getting Lehigh's offense off the field, as Lum completed 36 of 48 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown, including 13 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown to Spadola.
"A long time ago, even before we started the season, we said, 'If we could stay healthy, that we would be in good shape to win some ballgames,' " Ambrose said. "We needed all the bullets in the gun. We start losing a couple of the bullets it starts to show. ... I'm just happy to have bullets in the gun, at one time we had just rocks that we threw at people."
Even with West being used sporadically -- he had just two carries in Towson's first 20 plays -- the Tigers managed to put up enough points to match the Mountain Hawks. After tying the game at 17 with 49 seconds left in the first half, Towson took the lead early in the second half by turning a fumble on Lehigh's first play from scrimmage into a 9-play, 42-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown by West.
Three more ties followed, with Towson finishing the third quarter with a 31-24 lead but Lum hitting Spadola for a 39-yard gain to the Towson 20. Four plays later, Matt Fitz went in for a 1-yard touchdown. A 52-yard touchdown pass from Enders to junior wide receiver Gerrard Sheppard (McDonogh) gave the Tigers the lead, but Lehigh came right back to tie the game on a 1-yard run by Lum.
Then came the safety.
"Kind of ironic that it was a defensive play that won the game," said Lehigh coach Andy Coen, whose team won its playoff opener for the second straight year.
The victory was also the first in the playoffs by a Patriot League team over a CAA team since the Mountain Hawks beat Richmond in 1998. Lehigh will meet North Dakota State, which beat James Madison, 26-14, Saturday in Fargo. Despite the defeat, one of four in five games for the CAA Saturday, Ambrose saw the defeat as a stepping stone for his program.
Just four seniors started for Towson.
"It will be a great experience as we go forward to see such young guys grow," Ambrose said. "If you think we're good now? You're going to want to come back."
Coen said after the game that he was made aware of a racial slur Spadola tweeted Friday about the Towson players, but didn't think it deserved a suspension or benching for the game. It stemmed from a tweet that came from a Stony Brook player about the Tigers, who are not allowed to use Twitter by Ambrose.