Breaking down Towson

In order to get an insider's scoop on Towson, Purple Reign enlists the help of Matt Vensel, a Towson alum and sports writer for the Baltimore Sun. In this email exchange, Vensel sheds some light on the state of Towson football, which players to watch on Saturday and whether or not he thinks the Tigers can put up a fight against NU.

Purple Reign wasn't going to sit here and pretend to be expert on Towson, Northwestern's Week 1 opponent. So, with an admitted ignorance about the Tigers – I even had to look up the mascot – PR brought in Baltimore Sun writer Matt Vensel, who happens to be a Towson alum. The following is an enlightening, earth-shaking email exchange that Matt had with Purple Reign, in which you'll find everything you need to know about Northwestern's Week 1 opponent.

Purple Reign: You really don't hear much about Towson. I think the last time I heard someone mention Towson was in Seinfeld, when Elaine – trying to deflect accusations of being an Orioles fan – explained that she wasn't from Baltimore, but rather the suburb of Towson.

Because the university and the football program are pretty well off the map around Big Ten country, Purple Reign has invited in a real, live Towson expert – Matt Vensel, who recently got a Master's from Towson and is a sports writer for the Baltimore Sun. If anyone can shed light on the Towson Tigers, it's Matt.

It's not just an expression when I say I don't know where to begin. I mean, Towson is one football program that just doesn't get any pub. What I do know: The team has six wins and 17 losses in the past two seasons. I suppose it was those back-to-back three-win campaigns that prompted the firing last winter of Gordy Combs, who had been the coach for 17 years.

That's a good place to start: What happened the past couple of years? In the five seasons prior to that 3-8 record in 2007 – in which the Tigers lost eight of their last nine games – Combs' teams had averaged about six wins per season. They were 7-5 in 2005, 7-4 in 2006. That's really not bad. And then…what happened?

Vensel: You're right when you say that the Tigers don't get much publicity, even here in Baltimore, which is definitely a big-time football town. Obviously, the Ravens are the main attraction in the area when it comes to football, but with the University of Maryland a half hour south of the city in College Park, the Terps are the local college team that gets the most attention. Towson is a distant second, and we're talking light years here.

That's part of the reason that Gordy Combs was fired. Yeah, the back-to-back three-win seasons were the biggest factor, but with enrollment at Towson steadily growing and its campus expanding, the athletic department was feeling the pressure to bring its football program up to the standard the university was setting. Exit Combs and enter Rob Ambrose, the former offensive coordinator at UConn, the man who developed Dan Orlovsky into a NFL QB (albeit not a good one) and a former TU alum, to restart the struggling program.

Anyway, as for the on-field struggles in 2007 and 2008, Combs ran a pass-happy offense with Sean Schaefer, the school's all-time leading passer, under center. With a shaky offensive line and no semblance of a running game, opponents knew what was coming and dropped a slew of defenders into coverage to shut down the pass.

The Tigers were actually pretty solid on defense in 2007, especially considering they were in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is probably the best conference in Div. I-FCS (formerly I-AA). After all, the CAA has sent guys like Joe Flacco and Tim Hightower to the NFL. But the Tigers lost a bunch of seniors to graduation after the season and struggled defensively a year ago.

Now Ambrose has come in and worked the heck out of his players, scaring a number of them away with his tough practices, but it's tough to see how things will pan out in terms of X's and O's. It's a safe bet, though, that Ambrose will install more of a pro-style offense at Towson that will get the Tigers back to running the football. Remember, Ambrose designed the offense that made RB Donald Brown a first-round pick this year.

PR: It's interesting that Towson is going from a pass-happy offense to a pro-style offense. More and more teams are trending toward the spread, toward passing a ton and ditching the ol' I-formation. It's interesting that the opposite it happening there. The spread offense is a pet topic of mine, and I could rant about it like Homer Simpson could wax on about Duff. So I'll stop talking about the spread and get back to Towson….

My next questions would be, Is there anyway that the new coach, Rob Ambrose, can turn things around this season? It seems a team that was able to amass just six wins in two seasons wouldn't have much in the cupboard. Is that a safe assumption? Or are there some diamonds in the rough waiting to emerge this season?

MV: This certainly won't be a quick-fix for the Tigers. Ambrose has seriously shaken things up here after replacing the player-friendly Combs. I went to a spring practice where he made his players run a dozen or so sprints from goal line to goal line at the end of three-hour practice, which pretty much sums up how he plans to work his team. He's trying to weed out the slackers and kids with bad attitudes.

In terms of talent, there's not much top-end talent on the roster. Blair Peterson, a transfer from New Mexico, is probably the favorite to start at QB, but it's still up in the air. Senior LB Alex Butt, a transfer from Alabama a few years ago, is the team's top defensive player.

Still, Ambrose is basically starting from scratch and sees this as more of a three-to-five-year plan, which is good news for the Wildcats in the season opener. I don't see the Tigers putting up much of a fight.

PR: No, no, no! That was the part where you were supposed to say, "I'd be worried if I were a Wildcat fan. After all, the team is going to be fired up for its new coach, plus there is juuuuust enough talent to allow for the upset. If the Tigers can keep it close in the first half, and if NU gets a little antsy – well, crazier things have happened. I'm picking Towson, 20-17."

Don't you know how these things work!?

Kidding, kidding. I agree totally – I don't see Towson posing much of a threat to Northwestern either. It's just not a good "sneak up" game. It's NU's season- and home-opener, it's Mike Kafka's (re-)introduction as the starting quarterback, plus NU is coming off a year in which the Cats took a huge step toward asserting themselves as a Big Ten contender. I think they'll be geeked for this one – not to mention the huge gulf in talent. There is another non-conference game that I am much more worried about that no one else seems to be. (Hint: it's in a dome.) But this one against Towson, I concur, shouldn't be much of a problem.

If we're agreed on that, I wanted to ask about something else that has been discussed on our message board: Non-conference scheduling. There has been some debate about the merits of scheduling hard (and possibly losing) versus scheduling soft (and racking up numerous-but-meaningless wins).

So, what is Towson's rationale in scheduling Northwestern? The Tigers' other non-conference games are against Coastal Carolina and Morgan State, yet they open things up with a cross-country trip to Evanston to take on a Big Ten school. I read also that Towson was slated to open up the season against Morgan State but redid its schedule in March to allow for the trek to Evanston.

It seems easy enough to guess at NU's logic in bringing in Towson: An all but guaranteed win, an opportunity to have what amounts to a home scrimmage against an overmatched opponent to kick off the season and get things rolling. Truth be told, I am a proponent of Northwestern scheduling games like this because there is a lot that could backfire if the Cats were to play more legitimate competition…like Syracuse. There doesn't seem to be a lot that can backfire when you play a team with six wins in two seasons that was picked to finish sixth in the Colonial South Division.

But what about Towson? What does it get out of this? If they roll into Northwestern and get lambasted – which is probably what will (or at least should) happen – then it's worth…what? I couldn't find a single player on Towson's roster from Illinois. Are the Tigers going to start trying to recruit Illinois? Is seems like it'd make a lot more sense for them to play Maryland or UConn or Virginia or Rutgers. What gives with coming to Northwestern?

MV: Well, it's obvious how playing in a higher-profile game against Div. I-FBS foes can be beneficial for a FCS team. A program like Towson doesn't get pub, and the fact that you said you only knew that Towson existed because of "Seinfeld" speaks volumes about that. So while playing the role of cupcake against a school like Northwestern might not sound like fun for the players, it's a necessary step towards getting Towson on the map. Note that the Tigers opened last season at Navy, and the Mids ran all over them, winning 41-13. Towson and Navy are only about 45 minutes apart, so that had regional appeal. But traveling to Illinois means that a slew of recruits in the Midwest are going to be exposed to Towson, even if they just see it on the ESPN ticker, and who knows, a few of them might come to Towson if they can't find a scholarship in FBS.

In terms of the players, playing a team that is obviously better than you — and getting whooped — will only make them better. That experience will go a long way, and it will help prepare them for the regular-season battles in their conferences.

So really, it's the Wildcats that have everything to lose here — remember Michigan losing to Appalachian State? — not the Tigers.

Thanks again to Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun. You can check out Matt's blog here.

To reach David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.


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