In the 2018 regular season, the Towson football team had thrived in the red zone. The offense led the Colonial Athletic Association in touchdowns (35) when reaching the opponents’ 20-yard line.
But the Tigers could manage only three points in three red-zone trips in the first half of Saturday’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoff game. And that ineffectiveness contributed heavily to a 31-10 loss to visiting Duquesne in a first-round matchup before a rain-soaked 2,158 at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson.
The Dukes, the Northeast Conference champion, improved to 9-3 and earned their first win in the FCS postseason. They will travel to No. 5 seed South Dakota State (8-2) in the second round Dec. 1 at 3 p.m.
For the Tigers (7-5), the loss was their second in a row in the FCS playoffs after falling to North Dakota State, 35-7, in the 2013 national championship game. The program has not secured a victory in the postseason since Dec. 21, 2013 when that squad upset Eastern Washington, 35-31, in the semifinals.
“It’s a tough loss,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. “Any loss is a tough loss. The end of a season is a tough loss. The end of a collegiate career is a tough ending, but it ends, and we never want it to end.”
Towson opened the scoring when redshirt junior quarterback Tom Flacco connected with sophomore wide receiver Jabari Allen on a deep post route for a 34-yard touchdown with 10:43 left in the first quarter. But that was the offense’s lone successful display.
On the Tigers’ last series of the first quarter, they marched to Duquesne’s 12-yard line, but Flacco was sacked for an 8-yard loss on third down-and-8, and they watched junior kicker Aidan O’Neill push a 37-yard field-goal attempt wide left with 3:23 remaining. On the offense’s next possession, it drove to the Dukes’ 9, but had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by O’Neill with 7:07 left in the second quarter.
The Tigers followed that by pushing their way to Duquesne’s 2. But redshirt junior running back Shane Simpson took a handoff up the middle and lost the ball on a tackle by senior strong safety Brandon Stanback, who recovered the fumble with 4:07 remaining.
Asked if he could isolate the problems that plagued the red-zone offense, Flacco, the Colonial Athletic Association’s Offensive Player of the Year, said, “If I knew them, we would have figured them out and solved them, and it wouldn’t be an issue. But just kind of executing the plays that are given, and maybe when we were down there, I tried to do too much. I don’t know. Yeah, we have to get better at that in the offseason.”
Flacco completed only 10 of 33 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown, and carried the ball 14 times for 38 yards. He was sacked four times.
Dukes coach Jerry Schmitt said his defense’s ability to keep Towson out of the end zone proved critical.
“In the second quarter there, I was concerned,” he said. “I think it was huge that our defense held them to a field goal and held them out the last time before the half because it would have been tough if we got down three or four scores.”
Simpson, the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year who entered the game ranked second in the nation in all-purpose yards (177.6 yards per game), was injured on the fumble. He returned later in the third quarter to finish with 18 rushes for 96 yards and two catches for 9 yards. But he was not 100 percent, and the run offense stalled.
While Towson struggled on offense, the Dukes rediscovered theirs, scoring 31 unanswered points after falling behind 10-0. After a 32-yard field goal from junior kicker Mitch MacZura as time expired in the second quarter, senior running back Daquan Worley raced 48 yards up the middle for a touchdown with 12:21 left in the third.
After a Tigers three-and-out, junior quarterback Daniel Parr dumped a screen pass to A.J. Hines, and the junior running back navigated 71 yards for the score with 9:40 remaining. Parr added a 3-yard touchdown run with 12:31 left in the fourth quarter, and Hines scored on a 3-yard run of his own to cap the game’s scoring. Hines finished with 28 carries for 175 yards, one reception for 71 yards and two total touchdowns.
Towson had entered the game ranked No. 12 in the nation in passing with 288.5 yards per game, No. 13 in scoring with 36.7 points per game and No. 14 in total offense with 474.8 yards per game. The team was held to 127 passing yards, 357 total yards and 10 points, well below its season averages.
Like the loss to Lehigh in the first round of the 2011 postseason, this loss will stick for a while, Ambrose said.
“That one haunted me for a while,” he said. “They never go away. But you stick them in the encyclopedia and use them as experiences as you move forward and try to help these guys as best as you can. But as a player, as a coach, as anybody that has thoroughly invested in a football program, yeah, they all hurt. They all hurt, and they’re supposed to hurt.”
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Notes: Flacco’s touchdown pass to Allen was his 28th of the season, tying the program’s single-season record set in 1994 by Dan Crowley. … Duquesne improved to 1-1 in its FCS playoff history. The Dukes dropped a 52-49 shootout to William & Mary in their only postseason appearance in 2015. … Duquesne defeated a ranked opponent for the first time in school history. The Dukes had been 0-5 in previous games against ranked teams. … Duquesne is only the second NEC program to earn a victory in the FCS postseason, joining the 2012 Wagner team that defeated Colgate, 31-20.