It wasn't easy. Nothing in the Colonial Athletic Association ever is for Towson's football team.
But the sight of a team similarly struggling and the inspiration of homecoming were enough yesterday for the Tigers, who fended off a late rally by Rhode Island for a 37-32 victory before an announced 7,369 at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Towson (3-4, 1-2 CAA) seized control late in the third quarter and early in the fourth behind the passing of Sean Schaefer, who became the 20th quarterback in Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) history to pass for more than 10,000 career yards.
Then, according to Tigers coach Gordy Combs, "we got a little conservative in the fourth quarter, especially when we were up 37-19. Fortunately, it didn't backfire on us."
The Rams (2-5, 0-3) came roaring back behind the arm of Derek Cassidy, the league's Player of the Week last week. He set up one touchdown with a 28-yard completion to Brandon Johnson-Farrell (Arundel) and then threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Shawn Leonard after Schaefer had fumbled away the ball after being hit by linebacker Jeff Ball.
Rhode Island had possession one more time and marched to the Tigers' 29-yard line before Cassidy threw four consecutive incompletions, ending the final threat.
The win was Towson's first on homecoming since 2005, when it upset Delaware, and only its second in the past five games. Until the closing spree, it provided probably the Tigers' best defensive effort of the season.
"We missed a lot of opportunities, had a lot of dropped picks," said Towson defensive back Drew Mack, who had a strong game. "But their guys made some big plays, too, and we lost containment on the quarterback a few times and that creates a lot of problems."
The first half hardly foreshadowed the offensive output that was to come. In the end, Schaefer threw for 373 yards and four touchdowns, completing 25 passes, and Cassidy hit on 22 for 265 yards and two touchdowns.
But the majority of that came after a peculiar beginning during which the Rams scored nine points within 11 seconds without running an offensive play. A bad snap on a Towson punt attempt led to a safety when punter Bill Shears kicked the ball out of the end zone rather than risk a touchdown, and Johnson-Farrell, a freshman and former All-Metro selection, ran the ensuing free kick back 72 yards for a touchdown.
Towson answered with a drive to a field goal, then tied the score on its next possession with Schaefer hitting Casey Cegles for 24 yards on the final play of the first period. But Mark Bencivengo's extra-point attempt was partially blocked and failed, leaving it at 9-9, a score that held up into the third quarter.
"I told them I wanted to get 40 [points], and we almost got there," said Schaefer, who is second to New Hampshire's Ricky Santos on the all-time CAA passing list with 10,211 yards.
But Rhode Island didn't fold, and Combs was sweating at the end.
"They hit us with a big play and then another one," he said. "In coverage, we still make a lot of youthful mistakes. The offense bailed us out today."
It took a while before the league's top two passing offenses got going, but once they got on track, they produced 41 fourth-quarter points in a furious finish.
Towson is 3-1 at home this season and, but for a second-half collapse a week earlier, would be unbeaten there. Rhode Island is 0-4 on the road.
"They out-everythinged us in the third quarter, and then we decided to start playing a little bit of football," Rams coach Darren Rizzi said.
Towson has a bye next week before five consecutive league games, starting Oct. 25 at New Hampshire.
Oct. 25, noon
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