The Towson football team’s stay in the top 5 of NCAA Football Championship Subdivision rankings will be short-lived.
Five days after moving from No. 8 to No. 5 in the latest STATS FCS poll, the Tigers were upset by No. 18 Villanova, 52-45, in overtime before an announced 8,811 at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson on Saturday night.
So after moving to their highest ranking since 2013, Towson (3-1, 1-1 Colonial Athletic Association) will likely drop when the rankings are updated Monday. That’s despite another stellar effort from redshirt senior quarterback Tom Flacco, who passed for 304 yards, rushed for 110 and accounted for two touchdowns.
Tigers coach Rob Ambrose blamed himself for the outcome, noting that there may have been some lingering emotions from the team’s 45-23 win at then-No. 7 Maine on Sept. 14.
“I put this on me,” he said. “I didn’t call a good enough game. I didn’t get us right. We were a little bit hungover from the Maine win. That’s a very big win for us and the program, but we didn’t respond fast enough to play a quality opponent like Villanova.”
In the extra session, the Wildcats needed just two plays to reach the end zone, capped by junior quarterback Daniel Smith’s 2-yard run. On the Tigers’ ensuing possession, the offense moved to Villanova’s 7, but could move no further on third and fourth down.
“There were plays here and there that I wish I had back, and I’m sure there were other plays people wish they had back,” Flacco said. “We didn’t get the job done in that overtime.”
Wildcats senior linebacker Drew Wiley said he was confident that the Tigers would not be able to extend the game into a second overtime, saying, “I just knew that there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to stop them.”
A defense that had been uncharacteristically stout through the first three games was exposed by the Wildcats (4-0, 1-0). Not only did the unit surrender a season high in points, but it also gave up a season high in yards (574).
The defense continued to demonstrate a knack for causing turnovers. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Christian Dixon recovered a fumble by Smith in the pocket in the second quarter, redshirt senior linebacker Keon Paye made his third interception of the season in the third, and redshirt senior linebacker Robert Heyward returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown with 8:10 left in the fourth quarter.
Still, Heyward was at a loss to describe the factors that contributed to the defense’s performance.
“There were a lot of things,” he said. “We were out of position sometimes. Some plays, they were just more physical than we were.”
With the Tigers nursing a 28-21 lead after halftime, the defense allowed Villanova to score 21 consecutive points.
Smith scrambled 36 yards for a touchdown with 8:55 left in the third quarter, junior running back Justin Covington rushed 1 yard for a score with 3:37 remaining, and Smith found Covington on a play-action fake from 3 yards out with 11:33 left in the fourth.
Towson mounted its own comeback with 17 straight points. First, senior running back Yeedee Thaenrat plunged into the end zone from 1 yard to cut the deficit to 42-35 with 9:08 remaining.
Then on the Wildcats’ ensuing possession, Smith’s pass to freshman wide receiver Jaaron Hayek bounced off his hands and to Heyward, who returned the interception 49 yards for the defense’s second interception return for a score in as many games, tying the score at 42 with 8:10 left.
After a Villanova punt, the Tigers moved 63 yards in eight plays, which was enough for senior kicker Aidan O’Neill to convert a 34-yard field goal with 1:52 remaining for a 45-42 lead.
But the Wildcats did not go away. They converted a fourth-and-10 from their own 7-yard line when Smith found senior wide receiver Zac Kerxton for a 15-yard completion, and junior kicker Drew Kresge converted a 45-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in regulation.
Towson was constantly playing catch-up in the first half. The Wildcats opened with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Hayek just 2:54 into the first period.
The Tigers responded when Flacco kept the ball for a 42-yard sprint along the left hash marks to tie the score at 7-7 with 10:21 remaining. But Villanova answered with a 64-yard run by Covington and a 6-yard lob from Smith to junior tight end Todd Summers in the back left corner of the end zone with 7:53 left in the quarter.
The teams then combined for five consecutive punts before Smith fumbled the ball in the pocket, and Dixon pounced on the loose ball at the Wildcats’ 28 with 10:42 remaining in the second frame. Two plays and 11 seconds later, Flacco connected with redshirt senior wide receiver Shane Leatherbury for a 28-yard score to knot the game at 14.
Villanova’s next series ended with Smith hitting Hayek for a 27-yard touchdown pass with 6:15 left. Again, the Tigers responded when Flacco found redshirt junior tight end Jason Epps for a 34-yard gain to the Wildcats’ 3 and Thaenrat punched the ball in from four yards to tie the score at 21-21 with 2:43 remaining.
Towson did not take its first lead until there were 12 seconds left in the second quarter. A nine-play, 89-yard drive was aided by Flacco’s 43-yard scramble to Villanova’s 1-yard line and capped by Thaenrat’s touchdown plunge from the same distance.
That play gave Towson a 28-21 lead that was nearly trimmed after sophomore Dez Boykin took the ensuing kickoff 65 yards, setting up a 49-yard field-goal attempt for Kresge. But what would have been the junior kicker’s career long for a field goal failed as his boot sailed wide left.
Notes: Villanova ended the Tigers’ bid to open the season with four consecutive wins for the first time since 2013. That squad started 6-0. … The Wildcats improved to 10-6 in their all-time series with Towson and have won three of the past four meetings. … Flacco reached the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time this season and the third time in his career with the Tigers. … All eight of Thaenrat’s rushing touchdowns this season have been scored from 6 yards or less. … Redshirt senior running back Shane Simpson, who announced Tuesday that he had torn his ACL and MCL in the first quarter of last Saturday’s win at Maine, wore a brace on his right knee and was using crutches while standing on the Tigers sideline.