Caleb Smith said he can remember the last time he put up 200 receiving yards in a football game.
“Never,” he said with a smile.
So one might expect that his six-catch, 200-yard, one-touchdown showing in No. 21 Towson’s 31-24 win against Delaware on Saturday before an announced 5,522 at Johnny Unitas Stadium would be especially significant to the redshirt junior.
“It’s meaningful because we won the game,” the 6-foot-1, 195-pound wide receiver said. “We needed this win. It’s [quarterback] Tom [Flacco]’s birthday. It was a good win. Our offense is rolling now. Our O-line was blocking really well. We ran the ball really well. We haven’t run the ball that much in a while. It was just a good offensive and defensive win.”
Smith’s performance highlighted the Tigers’ victory, which was only their second in the last six games and ended a three-game losing streak in the Colonial Athletic Association. Towson improved to 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the conference, while the Blue Hens fell to 4-5 and 2-3.
Entering the game with 19 catches for 288 yards and zero touchdowns, Smith became the first Tigers player to compile at least 200 receiving yards in a game since Christian Summers finished with 232 yards and two scores on six receptions in a 35-28 win against St. Francis on Sept. 10, 2016.
Coach Rob Ambrose — who played with Smith’s father Rodney, a defensive lineman who was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2000 — expressed pride at seeing the younger Smith’s development.
“As an alum, there is something special about watching one of these guys’ kids come [and] grow through the program to the point where he’s excelling against incredibly good competition,” Ambrose said. “We preach this all the time: opportunity and obligation. This young man to my right has made the most out of his opportunities in a way that I don’t think any of us could have seen coming.”
Against Delaware, all nine of Smith’s catches went for 10 yards or more, and seven of them led to first downs. Flacco, the redshirt senior who completed an efficient 17-of-23 throws for 294 yards and one touchdown, said he targeted Smith a team-high 13 times because only one cornerback shadowed Smith.
“You can’t leave this guy one-on-one,” said Flacco, who turned 25. “That’s kind of what they were doing. So I was going to keep coming back to him consistently. I didn’t even realize how great of a game he had until I looked at these stats. … It’s just a credit to him, how strong he is and how athletic he is. I can’t say enough about Caleb. We all know what he’s capable of, and I hope this is a coming-out party for him, and I hope he keeps doing it for the rest of the season.”
Blue Hens coach Danny Rocco admitted that the defense was more concerned with redshirt senior Shane Leatherbury – who had entered the game leading Towson in receptions (38) and yards (519) – than Smith.
“That’s where our attention was early on in the week,” he said. “We’re very familiar with their receivers and the talent they have at receiver. … We knew that [Flacco is] willing to spread the ball around. He’s going to find the right guy to get the ball to, and today, I guess [Smith] had the nine catches and had a huge day against us.”
The Flacco-to-Smith connection began early. On the Tigers’ fourth offensive play of the game, Flacco found Smith on a short out route to the right that he turned into a 22-yard gain, and another 14 yards were added when Delaware redshirt freshman safety Noah Plack was flagged for a personal foul while shoving Smith out of bounds.
The very next play, Flacco hit Smith on a deep post for a 40-yard gain to the 1-yard line, and senior running back Yeedee Thaenrat dove into the end zone to give Towson a 7-0 lead.
After the Blue Hens knotted the score at 7-7 courtesy of a 15-play (12 rushes), 75-yard march, the Tigers opened the second quarter with Flacco and Smith striking again for 32 yards to Delaware’s 14. Three plays later, pressure forced Flacco to his left. But he stopped and heaved a cross-field pass to Smith, who caught the ball at the 4, slipped a tackle, and waltzed into the end zone for the 14-7 lead with 9:06 remaining.
That play gave Smith four catches for 104 yards, the first 100-yard receiving game of his career with Towson.
As well as Smith — who also lost a fumble after a 26-yard gain in the third quarter — played, the Tigers needed a huge defensive stop to cement the win. After Thaenrat (16 carries for 70 yards) punched in his third rushing touchdown on a 2-yard plunge with 4:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Blue Hens marched to Towson’s 16.
Faced with fourth down-and-4 with less than two minutes remaining, redshirt sophomore quarterback Nolan Henderson backed away from pressure towards the left sideline, scampered cross-field to the right, and slid for a 3-yard gain that ended a chance to send the game into overtime.
“I kind of lost track of where I had to get to after running around,” said Henderson, who went 13-of-24 for 240 yards and one touchdown. “At the end of the day, we came up a half-yard short. So to get that half yard, I can’t slide there.”
Notes: Senior kicker Aidan O’Neill’s 24-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter was the 59th of his career, tying the Colonial Athletic Association’s all-time record of 59 set by Greg Kuehn of William & Mary from 2002-05. O’Neill, who has converted 6-of-12 field goals this season, has a career field-goal percentage of .728 (59-of-81). … Junior safety Coby Tippett, who caught his defense-leading fifth interception in the second quarter, had zero in his first two seasons at Towson. … The 10-point lead at halftime was the Tigers’ largest at the break against a conference opponent this season.