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Towson quarterback Tom Flacco (14) escapes Duquesne linebacker Jalen Booker in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Towson quarterback Tom Flacco (14) escapes Duquesne linebacker Jalen Booker in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Johnny Unitas Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

For Rob Ambrose, Tom Flacco and Shane Simpson, the Towson football team’s 31-10 home loss to Duquesne in last year’s first round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs stung for a while.

Ambrose, who is entering his 11th season as the program’s head coach, joked that he is still haunted by the school’s 35-7 setback to North Dakota State in the 2012 FCS title game. Flacco, the redshirt senior quarterback, admitted that he no longer gets upset when he hears the name “Duquesne.”

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Meanwhile, Simpson, the redshirt senior running back, said he kept replaying the game in his head for more than a month.

“I was definitely feeling the effects from the loss during Christmas break,” he recalled, adding that he refused to watch film of the game for at least one week. “After that, I knew I couldn’t dwell on it that long. But until then, I always had that in the back of my mind, the way we lost. I’m never going out like that again.”

The Colonial Athletic Association football media day at M&T Bank Stadium on Tuesday provided a little solace as the Tigers were voted to finish second in the conference’s preseason poll. Their three first-place votes and 217 points trailed only James Madison’s 20 votes and 238 points.

Towson returns 15 of 22 starters from a squad that went 7-5 last fall and tied for third in the league, earning the Tigers a No. 10 ranking in the HERO Sports FCS preseason rankings and the No. 11 slot in the Athlon Sports’ preseason poll, the program’s first appearance in the rankings since 2014.

Towson coach Rob Ambrose in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Johnny Unitas Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Led by three returning All-Americans, Towson is scheduled to play 2018 league champion Maine (voted No. 3 in CAA preseason poll), James Madison, Elon (No. 4), Delaware (No. 5) and Stony Brook (No. 6) this season.

Flacco, the younger brother of former Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, welcomed the challenging conference schedule.

“You want to be the guys that everyone wants to go get,” he said. “You want to have that target on your back because that means that you’re having success and you’re doing it right. So we’re excited to have that, but in terms of motivation, we just wanted to go out there and get better every day, and we did, and we have the same type of mentality this year, too.”

The offense figures to be potent. Flacco ranked third in the FCS in total offense and fifth in passing yards last season, finishing fifth in voting for the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the top offensive player in the FCS. Simpson, the reigning CAA Special Teams Player of the Year, ranked second in the FCS in all-purpose yards per game.

Senior kicker Aidan O’Neill is the program’s career leader in field goals (53) and has a chance to tie or eclipse the FCS record of 75.

But Towson did graduate seven starters, including four from a defensive grouping that was anchored by middle linebacker Diondre Wallace (89 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack and one interception), safety Monty Fenner (71 tackles and 19 pass breakups), and defensive linemen Zain Harps Upshur and Niquekko Cook.

Duquesne defensive back Harvey Clayton Jr. (9) pursues Towson running back Shane Simpson (13) in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Duquesne defensive back Harvey Clayton Jr. (9) pursues Towson running back Shane Simpson (13) in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Johnny Unitas Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Ambrose also lost three members of his coaching staff, including offensive coordinator and younger brother Jared Ambrose — who left to take the same position at CAA archrival Delaware — special teams coordinator Joe Tricario and cornerbacks coach Scott Lakatos, who was hired as the secondary coach at Bryant.

Eric Daniels (defensive coordinator, inside linebackers), Nate Brown (cornerbacks) and Williams Lang (tight ends, fullbacks) joined the staff, and Lyndon Johnson shifted from defensive coordinator to special teams coordinator. Scott Van Zile moved from running backs coach to quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, and Tyree Foreman will coach running backs after leading the tight ends in 2018.

The predicted second-place finish is a far cry from finishing 10th in the CAA’s 2018 preseason poll, which galvanized players, coaches and fans. But Ambrose said the team’s mindset should remain the same.

“What I said last year when we were picked 10th is the exact same truth this year when we’re picked second: it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Why does it matter that we were picked second when we were picked 10th last year? It matters where we finish, and what they understand is that none of that really matters. It’s the work that we do, how consistent we are, and how far we go to finish. The goal was for them to accomplish all of those things I said. This year, it’s not about those things. We are respected. We’ve earned that as a program and as a team. Now it’s, what are we going to do with it?”

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Notes: Flacco was tabbed as the CAA’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year. He was joined on the league’s preseason all-offensive team by Simpson and senior wide receiver Shane Leatherbury. … Senior linebacker Robert Heyward was named to the preseason all-defensive squad. … O’Neill was selected to the preseason special teams unit. … Junior wide receiver Jabari Allen, redshirt junior linebacker Bryce Carter, redshirt junior left guard Aaron Grzymkowski, and redshirt senior linebacker Keon Paye received honorable-mention status. … James Madison senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter (Long Reach) and Maine senior cornerback Manny Patterson (Mount Saint Joseph) earned spots on the all-defensive team.

CAA football preseason poll

(Selected by a vote of coaches and media relations directors)

1. James Madison (20 first-place votes): 238

2. Towson (3): 217

3. Maine (1): 201

4. Elon: 164

5. Delaware: 162

6. Stony Brook: 151

7. New Hampshire: 109

8. Rhode Island: 104

9. Villanova: 84

10. Richmond: 62

11. William & Mary: 58

12. UAlbany: 34

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