Air Albert nearly altered the field for the NCAA Division I-AA tournament.
Towson State threw a major scare into Youngstown State yesterday at Minnegan Stadium, as the Penguins secondary worked overtime to turn back the Tigers and their freshman quarterback, Dan Crowley. Youngstown State (8-3) intercepted six of Crowley's 55 passes -- including three in the fourth quarter -- to secure a 27-17 victory and what should be its third straight appearance in the I-AA tournament.
The Penguins entered ranked No. 14 and on the bubble for the 16-team field, which will be announced by the NCAA tonight. Towson State (1-10) finished with the worst record in the history of a program that began in 1969 and a third straight losing record for the first time, but coach Phil Albert didn't sound discouraged.
"You come out every day in a losing situation, and there's not a lot of reason to get up to play," Albert said. "The last five years have been very frustrating for everyone here. We're making progress, but it doesn't show in the record. We're a better football team than we were a year ago.
"Our effort today was excellent. We just made some crucial errors at important times and that was the difference."
The most crucial mistake came with 5 minutes, 6 seconds left and Youngstown State clinging to a 20-17 lead. The Tigers had moved from their 20 to the Penguins' 39, where Albert called for a short sideline pass to Mark Orlando on third-and-one. Cornerback Reginald Brown stepped up for the interception, however, returned it to the Tigers' 21, and the visitors from Ohio weren't in trouble again.
Crowley was intercepted seven times in a loss at Maine last week, and the true freshman from DeMatha finished with 22, the most in season by a Tiger.
Albert began the season with senior Gary Worthington playing quarterback for the first time as a collegian. Crowley attempted a school-record 56 passes in his first start at Liberty on Oct. 26, most of those coming during an attempt to erase a big second-half deficit.
Yesterday's near-record total was different.
Crowley, who completed 27 for 318 yards, threw for two touchdowns in a three-minute span midway through the third quarter.
Orlando, a freshman out of Liberty High who had nine catches for 128 yards, turned a simple slant pattern into a 28-yard touchdown and 10-6 lead. Crowley and Kevin Howard found a hole at midfield for a 62-yard scoring play that regained the lead for the Tigers at 17-13 with 6:31 left in the period.
Youngstown State answered both of those big plays with touchdown drives of its own, as four touchdowns were scored in a nine-minute span. The Penguins' option offense went 78 yards on five plays, with senior quarterback Ray Isaac going the last 11 with 7:45 left in the quarter.
The winning touchdown came via the fancy footwork of Leo Hawkins with 13 seconds left in the third quarter. On fourth-and-three from the Tigers' 14, Isaac pitched late to Hawkins, who hurdled Mike Locksley at the 10 and somehow kept his balance into the end zone.
The Penguins got insurance score with 59 seconds remaining, Isaac rolling right for an 8-yard touchdown. It came after the Tigers started a drive at their 14-yard line and went backward, and diminished one of the better defensive efforts turned in by Towson State this season.
Isaac passed for 140 yards and rushed for 64 more, but the Penguins needed a 27-yard field goal from Jeff Wilkins on the last play of the first half to take a 6-3 lead. Freshman Mike Arbutina was in on 15 tackles, senior James Dutton had 13 tackles and an interception, and Worthington, another linebacker, had seven tackles and blocked a field goal.
Towson State got a 26-yard field goal from freshman Buddy Dunn midway through the first quarter.