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Stifling defense propels Towson football to 28-7 upset of No. 12 Rhode Island

Towson cornerback Brandon Shuman’s interception against Rhode Island as time expired seemed to be a fitting way to top off the football program’s best win in years.

The Tigers contained one of the top offenses in the Colonial Athletic Association and then snuffed out any hope of a comeback by relying on a punishing running game to pull off a 28-7 upset of the No. 12 Rams before an announced 3,375 Saturday evening at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson.

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The victory was Towson’s first against a ranked opponent since Sept. 14, 2019, when that squad upended No. 7 Maine, 45-23. It was the program’s first against a ranked opponent at home since Oct. 6, 2018, when the Tigers throttled No. 13 Stony Brook, 52-28.

Towson’s most significant win of the season was made possible by a defense that has been somewhat of an afterthought. The unit produced five sacks and two takeaways and held the Rams to 5-for-15 on third-down opportunities while surrendering only 162 yards of total offense.

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Rhode Island, which entered the game ranked third in the CAA in scoring and fifth in yards, was held 24 points and 234 yards below its season averages.

“We just got tired of losing,” said redshirt senior middle linebacker Christian Dixon, who racked up 11 tackles, four for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble. “We know what we’re capable of. We know that we’re better than what we displayed. Basically, that’s us. That defense that we showed for the past two weeks, that’s us. We can be that defense every week.”

After making a final stand to cement last Saturday’s 21-14 win against Stony Brook that ended a three-game losing skid, the defense has strung together two solid performances. Coach Rob Ambrose said he sensed the unit was capable of these types of showings.

“I said there was going to be a chance to win games with this defense, especially if we can put ourselves in a position where we’re up and we’re forcing the issue and making them throw,” he said. “The coverage has gotten better, the pass rush has gotten better. The 11 guys out there and the seven more that are rolling in really love playing football together. Good defensive football is a beautiful thing that seems to have been lost, but I’m glad we found it.”

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The Tigers set the tone by forcing Rhode Island into a three-and-out to open the game. A short punt set up a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Devin Matthews and a 7-0 lead with 10:39 left in the first quarter.

After the two sides traded punts, Dixon delivered a hit over the middle that dislodged the ball from senior wide receiver Ivory Frimpong. Redshirt senior defensive end Sam Gyeni recovered the fumble at the Rams’ 19-yard line, and Towson converted the opportunity with a 3-yard score by Matthews with 3:54 remaining.

Rhode Island responded with an 18-yard touchdown run by redshirt senior running back Justice Antrum, but that was the Tigers’ only concession as they clamped down on the Rams’ run-pass option scheme. Redshirt junior quarterback Kasim Hill, the former Maryland starter who ranked third in the CAA in total yards and was a two-time Offensive Player of the Week selection, was limited to 7 of 26 passing for 90 yards and minus-27 yards on 10 carries. Antrum, who registered two 100-yard games this season, finished with 62 yards on 15 attempts.

“We tried to contain the quarterback and contain the running back, too. So we blitzed a lot,” Dixon said. “We didn’t let them get complacent with the passes. So we set the edge.”

Towson extended its advantage to 21-7 with 2:04 left in the third quarter courtesy of a 4-yard touchdown pass from graduate student quarterback Chris Ferguson to redshirt senior wide receiver Jabari Allen. The drive was aided by a double-reverse on third-and-7 at Rhode Island’s 21 that culminated in Ferguson finding graduate student running back Jerry Howard Jr. in the left flat for a 13-yard gain.

Howard cemented the game with a 1-yard touchdown with 2:50 left in the regulation and finished with 27 carries for 106 yards — his first 100-yard game since transferring from Georgia Tech.

“I’ve got to thank my offensive line,” he said. “This is the first of many.”

TOWSON@WILLIAM & MARY

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Video: FloSports.com

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