Tigers bid to make Patriot statement After 2-8, they're out to prove they belong


September 02, 1998|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

After failing to prove skeptics wrong last season, the Towson Tigers' disappointing, 2-8 performance in 1997 provides the foundation for their goals for 1998.

Mainly, they want to prove that Gordy Combs' first losing season as head coach was a fluke. And that the team belongs in the Patriot League.

Towson will get opportunities to prove both early in the season. The first chance will come tomorrow night when it plays Morgan State in its season opener. The second will come when it is host to defending league champion Colgate on Sept. 19.

"Not many times do you have the defending Patriot League champion coming in early in the season," Combs said. "It will be a measuring stick for how far we've come in a year."

It was a year ago that the Tigers entered their first season in the Patriot League, eager to see how they measured up in one of the top Division I-AA conferences.

There were skeptics, such as Colgate wide receiver Corey Hill, who, before the 1997 season began, advised Towson to "go back and play in Division II or Division III."

The words hurt enough, but the fact that they rang prophetic hurt even more.

"We took that personally, and we still take it personally," Towson quarterback Kevin Smith said.

For a while, the team defied the doomsayers, pounding Holy Cross, 27-7, in its league opener, then playing one of the league's favorites, Lehigh, closely before falling, 16-14.

The honeymoon ended when the team forfeited the Holy Cross victory because of the use of an academically ineligible player, then suspended four players -- including two starters -- after they were arrested following an altercation at a North Baltimore pub.

Those setbacks, particularly the forfeit, were too much for the team to overcome.

"The games taken away from us were the worst things that could have happened to us," Towson running back and All-Patriot League pick Jason Corle said. "It's hard enough for a veteran team to have that happen, let alone a young team like ours. It broke our backs."

Combs has a 36-24 record in six seasons as a head coach and his experience left him philosophical.

"We've had losing seasons before," he said. "The only difference was that I was the boss. You can't dwell; just move on to the next game and rectify the situation. We've solved some of our problems."

One of the perks of having a young team is that players return, including Corle, a junior who ran for 1,075 yards last season and led the league with 1,465 all-purpose yards.

The main goal of the offense run by senior Smith is to get the ball into the hands of Corle, who also caught 51 passes last season.

"Jason will be the main thing for us," Combs said. "He's proven that he can do that last year in the games against a Patriot League schedule. And we'll ride the horse."

Whether Towson achieves greater success on offense may depend on what kind of success Smith has. Last season, his passing yardage (1,835) decreased significantly from that of 1996 (2,299), and he threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns.

After shedding 40 pounds to 210, the 5-foot-11 Smith was said to be much sharper in spring practices and during the preseason camp.

"He's looking great this year," said Towson wide receiver Adam Overbey, who led the team in receiving yards last season with 564. "In the spring game, he was a lot more mobile, and he's carried that into the summer."

On defense, it's a mixed bag, with heavy experience up front, minimal experience in the backfield and no experience among the linebackers.

All four members of the defensive line started at one point last season, beginning with Dannie Ross (nose guard) and Eric Erhardt (right end), both of whom started in each of their previous three seasons at Towson.

Joining them on the line will be Jason Birdwell (tackle) and Andrew Hollingsworth (left end), each of whom started about half of last season.

In the secondary, cornerback Jabari Garrett earned first-team all-Patriot honors as a sophomore.

What the rest are capable of is in question; none of the other three starters -- Scott Van Zile (free safety), Mike Smith (strong safety) and Ricky Crestwell (cornerback) -- has ever started a college game.

And at linebacker, no starters return. Middle linebacker Ryan Barikian is the only projected starter with any varsity experience. Still, Combs speaks glowingly of outside linebackers Tyrone Bell and Aaron Sakevich, both of whom played on the junior varsity as freshmen because of the presence of then-seniors Jim Colongo, Jimmy Eulo and Barrett Sullivan.

Garrett said Bell's and Sakevich's junior varsity season allowed them more playing time to polish raw skills before moving to the varsity.

"It helped both of them learn our defense. Now they come in as starters, and they know the system already," Garrett said.

"They were already [capable] of making plays, but sometimes, they didn't know what they were going to do. Now, they're ready to play."

Towson University

Coach: Gordy Combs (seventh season)

Last year: 2-8

Conference: Patriot League

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