What began as an utterly forgettable home opener for Towson on Saturday night ended as one for the memory banks.
After surrendering an 89-yard defensive touchdown on their first play from scrimmage, then minutes later losing their touted transfer quarterback to injury, the Tigers rallied from an 18-point deficit to pull out a 35-28 win over Saint Francis before an announced 8,069 at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Trailing 28-10 before a field goal as time expired in the second quarter, Towson stormed back with 25 unanswered points on the strength of backup quarterback Ellis Knudson, a redshirt sophomore who replaced starter Morgan Mahalak after the Oregon transfer left the game with an apparent shoulder injury midway through the first quarter. The strong-armed Knudson completed 10 of 22 passes for 301 yards, including a tiebreaking 43-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Christian Summers with 2:21 left.
Mahalak was wearing a sling after the game, and his status for next week is unknown.
"I'm proud of our guys, not for how we started but for how we finished," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. "It's about how do they respond to adversity and how do they respond at the end. There was no hanging our heads."
Summers finished with six catches for 232 yards — 34 yards shy of a program record — becoming the first Tigers receiver to eclipse 200 yards in a game since 2005.
Keon Paye's interception with 1:35 left then sealed the win, helping Towson avoid its second 0-2 start in three years.
The ending capped a stellar second half for the Tigers, who had trailed 28-13 at halftime.
Still down by a touchdown late in the third, they pulled even when Knudson found Summers on a screen pass, and the receiver took it 94 yards, outrunning a defender before diving to the goal line.
Defensive end D'Sean Cummings then kept the score even when he blocked Lance Geesey's 30-yard chip-shot attempt with 6:32 left.
Gaining just 114 yards rushing while playing against a defense often stacking nine men in the box, Towson won this one on the strength of its passing.
"After seven years of being here, I guess everybody knows that to beat us you have to stop the run," Ambrose said. "Difference is we've gotten a little [more] efficient at throwing the football."
This one got off to a wild start.
On the game's very first play from scrimmage, Towson's Zain Harps Upshur fell on a fumbled snap, immediately giving the Tigers the ball at the Red Flash 11.
On the next play, however, Towson running back Darius Victor — playing with a cast on his left hand following an injury during camp — coughed up the ball on a hit by lineman Austin Gray. It popped into the hands of defensive back Lorenzo Jerome, Saint Francis' speedy return man who took it 89 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown.
The Tigers responded with a 14-play drive, with Mahalak completing four straight passes for 58 yards, before having to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Aidan O'Neill.
After taking a several big hits early, Mahalak left the game with an injury midway through the first quarter. He would not return, replaced by Knudson.
The Red Flash then extended its lead to 14-3 on a 60-yard pass over the top to wide receiver Kamron Lewis, who beat corner Lyrics Klugh for the catch at about the 2 and outran him into the end zone.
Towson, however, didn't let this one get away.
Led by Knudson, who at 6-foot-2 and 241 pounds resembles a linebacker more than a quarterback, the Tigers soon cut the lead to four. On successive plays, Knudson hit Summers for gains of 14 and 21 yards, then on the next play took off through a gaping hole on the right side, running 20 yards untouched for the score.
"I just went in there like I was the starter," Knudson said. "Throughout the game, my guys just started playing for me, with me."
Then, trailing 28-13 early in the third, Towson pulled to within a touchdown when Victor capped a 13-play, 75-yard drive with a 2-yard run off the right side, and Monty Fenner ran in the two-point conversion.
Summers, who finished with two touchdown catches, said experience made the difference.
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"I was with Ellis all summer before Morgan even got here," Summers said. "We just have that connection. I'm confident with both [quarterbacks]."