Football coaches are fond of saying that it takes all three phases of a team — offense, defense and special teams — to be successful.
The offense and defense did their part in No. 7 seed Towson’s convincing 48-28 victory over visiting Fordham on Saturday in a NCAA Division I Football Championship second-round game, but the same could not be said of the special teams.
That unit committed back-to-back-to-back gaffes in the second quarter, and two were costly: The Rams (12-2) turned them into touchdowns to roar back from a 21-7 deficit. The third miscue, a squib kick that bounced off Tigers junior Thomas Bradley and was recovered by Fordham junior Marco Fragnito, did not haunt Towson (11-2), if only because junior kicker Michael Marando’s 41-yard field goal sailed wide left as time ran out in the first half.
In his postgame news conference, Tigers coach Rob Ambrose declined to criticize the play on special teams.
“Minus four plays in the second quarter, we’re handling them, and it took four plays — three of which were basically fluke plays — for them to be tied with us,” he said. “Granted, they’re a very, very good football team, but if you took those four plays away, it’s probably 21-7. While the emotions were high and people were certainly disappointed with a couple of individual moments, it didn’t really tell the tale of the tape.”
In some ways, Ambrose is right. While the errors appeared to loom large and happen alarmingly often, in the end, they did not prevent Towson from claiming the program’s first postseason win since 1984.
But the manner in which its mistakes occurred was puzzling at times. With Rams freshman punter Joe Pavlik punting from his own end zone on fourth-and-14 at the 7, Tigers sophomore Navassa Brown did not need to smash into Pavlik while attempting to block the kick, but he did. Brown was assessed a roughing-the-punter penalty, and Fordham — armed with a fresh set of downs — took advantage. Junior quarterback Michael Nebrich found junior wide receiver Sam Ajala for a 23-yard touchdown shortly after with 6:32 left in the second quarter.
On the Rams’ next possession, Pavlik punted on fourth-and-25 from the 4. Junior Brian Dowling signaled a fair catch, but he appeared to miscalculate the ball’s flight and, rather than let the ball bounce into the turf and be downed by Fordham, dived for it. Instead, the ball squirted through Dowling’s grasp, and Rams junior strong safety Jake Dixon pounced on the loose ball at Towson’s 47. On fourth-and-13 from the 37, Ajala used a double move to freeze junior cornerback Tye Smith and catch a strike from Nebrich for the touchdown to knot the score at 21 with 41 seconds left before halftime.
Ambrose, however, defended the special teams and said the mistakes did not indicate a need to overhaul the unit.
“One is a mental error,” he said, referring to Brown’s roughing-the-punter penalty. “One, Brian dropped it. It happens. You see punt returners all over the country drop a ball every now and then. It’s not about that. And here is your stat of the day: In two playoff games and in both of those playoff games, the opposing team has found a way to kick the ball in such a magnanimous fashion that he’s actually hit one of our kick returners — not on purpose.
"Don’t tell me that was on purpose. So we’ve only played two — two — playoff games, and it’s happened twice. I never heard of that ever. So back to the drawing board? No. There’s no coaching against fluke plays. Finding a way to watch the ball land for Brian? Yup. Short memory. Making sure Navassa doesn’t run into the kicker? Short memory. But you don’t have to restart special teams just because of fluke plays.”