Even with the final seconds ticking away and the unhappy outcome of the Football Championship Subdivision championship game long since assured, there were no heads hanging among the Towson faithful gathered at Mother's Peninsula Grille in Arnold.
The Tigers hit the ground running and, for a large chunk of the first half, seemed destined to embarrass the oddsmakers who had made them a huge underdog against the two-time defending FCS-champion Bison of North Dakota State. But their title hopes unraveled late in the second quarter, and the Bison three-peat came even easier than the double-digit point spread gave reason to expect.
"Tough way to end,'' said 1987 grad Don Oldershaw of Severna Park, "but this season was sure fun."
It's hard to look at Towson's magical run through the FCS playoffs, which included exciting victories over No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois and No. 3 seed Eastern Washington, and not come away feeling all warm and fuzzy about coach Rob Ambrose and his team. It's also hard to look at Towson and not see an athletic program that has come into its own over the past couple of years.
The proof was in the viewing parties taking place throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area and the enthusiasm of the fans who packed into Mother's and other local sports bars dressed proudly in Towson gold and black.
"I've never been a huge college football fan,'' said 2010 grad Justin Lewis of Pasadena, "but I'm very supportive of the school, and it's great to be in a bar where it's all about Towson."
Well, it wasn't all about Towson. There were a couple of screens at Mother's tuned to Maryland men's basketball, and the Terps cruised to a 16-point victory over Georgia Tech in their Atlantic Coast Conference home opener, but there was no doubt why the place was packed nearly three hours before the NFL playoffs were scheduled to begin.
"It's been awesome,'' Oldershaw said. "The funny thing is, I always tell people that I went to Towson and root for Maryland. Now, with football, basketball and baseball, we've got our own teams to root for."
Sure enough, Pat Skerry turned the men's basketball program around last year, and the baseball team shook off all the angst surrounding the attempt to eliminate the program and won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in May. Now Ambrose has put Towson in the national spotlight.
"This is huge,'' said Beverly Burns, an '06 grad who played women's lacrosse. "It's very exciting for football."
"It's about time Towson was able to represent the state,'' added fellow lacrosse alumnus Corey Sboray ('03) of Severna Park.
Towson represented pretty well at the outset. Though North Dakota State drove for the first touchdown of the game, the Tigers returned the favor and tied the score on the last play of the first quarter. They seemed poised to take the lead after driving deep into Bison territory late in the second quarter, but a blocked field goal sparked a dramatic momentum shift that would send Towson into the locker room at intermission down by 14.
It became obvious in the third quarter why North Dakota State had won the previous two FCS championships and had not lost a game since October 2012.
"We're just happy we made it this far,'' Burns said.
There was the predictable mixture of pride and regret as the bar crowd began to thin late in the fourth quarter. The Tigers did not win the title, but there's still a lot to be said for playing your last game of the season in front of a national television audience.
Keep in mind that North Dakota State opened this season by beating Kansas State, a Big 12 team that just hammered Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. There's no shame in being the second-best FCS team in the nation.
"It put Towson on the map,'' Lewis said. "It's weird. When I was a student there, the football team wasn't good. The basketball team wasn't good. Now, all of a sudden, Towson is a destination for people. It's really cool to see that."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.