If the No. 23 Towson football team was at all nervous about Saturday’s game against No. 13 Stony Brook, Shane Simpson calmed his teammates quickly.
The redshirt junior returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in the first 12 seconds, igniting a three-touchdown first quarter that propelled the host Tigers to a 52-28 upset in a key Colonial Athletic Association game before an announced 4,614 at Johnny Unitas Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Simpson added an 8-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter en route to 204 all-purpose yards. Redshirt junior quarterback Tom Flacco found redshirt sophomore tight end Chris Clark for a 12-yard touchdown that matched Towson’s season high for points in the first quarter. It was the first of four touchdown passes for Flacco, who led the Tigers to their highest scoring output since Nov. 17, 2012, when they routed New Hampshire, 64-35.
“Coming off a physical game last week, this was a hell of a challenge,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. “This is a great, great football team we just played. There’s a reason they’re ranked as high as they are, there’s a reason they’re a playoff team [in 2017] and there’s a reason we won. I’m very proud of our guys. … Everybody understood how important this was, and it’s a pretty big win.”
The strong start helped the Tigers improved to 4-1 overall record and 2-0 in the conference. The Seawolves dropped to 4-2 and 2-1.
Towson earned its first national ranking since 2014 when the program moved to No. 25 in the STATS Football Championship Subdivision poll after upsetting then-No. 10 Villanova, 45-35, on Sept. 15. The team rose two spots after a 44-27 victory over The Citadel on Sept. 29.
The Tigers figure to move up again after Saturday’s impressive showing. Simpson’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the second of his career and first since Oct. 22, 2016, when he returned one 100 yards for a score against New Hampshire. It was also the first kick return for a score surrendered by Stony Brook since Sept. 18, 2010, when Brown’s Mark Kachmer took one 91 yards.
Simpson credited special teams coordinator Joe Tricario for setting up blocks that opened a hole “like the Red Sea.”
“Definitely set the tone, being the first play of the game,” he said. “They deferred, and we took it as disrespect, and as a whole and as a unit, we executed what Coach [Tricario] had planned, and it was a touchdown.”
Flacco, the reigning STATS Football Championship Subdivision National Offensive Player of the Week and younger brother of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, completed 23 of 33 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns. He also led the offense in rushing with 37 yards on five attempts, but pointed to Simpson’s game-opening score as the tone-setter.
“It was awesome because we usually win the toss, and this was the first time we lost the toss,” Flacco said. “So for us to get the ball first and for him to spot us seven, the way I was looking at it was, you can’t spot our offense seven points, and I was happy that happened.”
Redshirt junior wide receiver Shane Leatherbury led all players with nine catches for 129 yards. Redshirt junior wide receiver Brent Richardson added four receptions for 64 yards and one touchdown, and Clark had two catches for 36 yards and two scores.
Not to be outdone, Towson’s defense limited a Seawolves offense that had averaged 222.0 rushing yards per game — tops in the CAA — to 104 yards, including 37 in the first half. The ineffective ground game and early deficit forced Stony Brook to lean on senior quarterback Joe Carbone, who finished with 195 yards and two touchdowns on 15-for-24 passing.
Carbone’s two scores came immediately after a pair of Tigers miscues. After free safety Synceir Malone intercepted a pass by Flacco, Carbone hit fifth-year senior Marshall Ellick for a 53-yard touchdown on the next play with 11:35 left in the second quarter.
On Towson’s next offensive series, sophomore running back Kobe Young was stripped by senior middle linebacker Noah McGinty and senior defensive lineman John Haggart recovered the fumble at the 25-yard line. On the very next play, Carbone hit senior running back Donald Liotine in stride to make it a one-score game at 21-14 with 10:33 remaining in the second quarter.
But Flacco connected with Clark for a 24-yard touchdown and Richardson for a 30-yard score to send the Tigers into halftime with a comfortable 35-14 advantage that it would not relinquish.
Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore acknowledged the difficulty of trying to climb out of the first-quarter deficit.
“Certainly, I think early in the game, the opening kickoff goes back, three-and-out, they score again, and I think before we even looked up, it was 21-0,” he said. “I’m going to give credit to Towson. I think they played physical.”