KINGSTON, R.I. — After a 10th consecutive losing season, maybe someday the University of Rhode Island football program can tell a story like the one the Towson University football program has written in 2011.
The Tigers completed an improbable turnaround from a 1-10 finish in 2010 by going 9-2 (7-1 in the league) and winning their first CAA championship. The Tigers had to rally to beat the Rams and leave the field with the championship trophy Saturday.
After trailing Rhode Island 10-0 in the first quarter, the Tigers shrugged off the deficit to score the next three touchdowns and pull out a 28-17 victory on a sunny, windy afternoon before 2,883 spectators at Meade Stadium.
The No. 8 Tigers earned their first Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth with the win.
"URI is the best three-win team in the country, Joe [Trainer] is a hell of a coach and we're extremely lucky to get out of here with a win," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. He described the journey from 1-10 to 9-2 and a title as "shock and awe" and said it was the result of "a ridiculous amount of hard work" and recruiting "guys who could believe in something you can't see . . . who believe in team."
Towson wide receiver Tom Ryan, who caught two touchdown passes, said the trophy was the result of "getting up at 4:30 in the morning and lifting and running as a family."
The Tigers were tied with Maine for first place in the CAA but clinched the championship when the Black Bears lost to New Hampshire Saturday. Rhode Island finished 3-8, 2-6 in the league, after the loss.
URI started this season with high expectations founded on their 5-6 record in 2010. They opened with road losses at Syracuse and Massachusetts, games they could have won, setting a pattern for the rest of the season. Losses to Brown and James Madison were the only games in which they did not play well.
Injuries, especially to defensive linemen and to tailback Ayo Isijola, played a role in Rhode Island's step back, but Trainer had difficulty pinpointing other reasons why his team came so close so often but had mostly a string of losses to show for its hard work.
"There are critical points in a game where good teams make plays to get them over the top. I don't know if that's affirmation, or kids actually believing they can do it or confidence. It's hard for me to put a finger on it," Trainer said.
URI looked like the No. 8 team in the nation in the first quarter. The Rams took the opening kickoff and drove 54 yards in 12 plays, setting up Louis Feinstein's 28-yard field goal at 7:34. An 11-yard pass from Bob Bentsen to Brandon Johnson-Farrell and a 13-yard toss to Ty Bynum were the key plays.
The Rams' defense forced Towson to go three and out, and Bentsen directed the Rams on a 62-yard, 10-play scoring march for a 10-0 lead with 52 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Brandon Johnson-Farrell bobbled a catch but went 12 yards on a third and 10. Bynum caught a 14-yard pass, Chris Mancuso grabbed a 10-yarder, and tight end Joe Migliarese caught Bentsen's 20-yard strike for the touchdown.
Ambrose must have informed his Tigers that URI was not going quietly on Senior Day.
"When you get to November and you play a team with three wins, you think you'll roll them," he said. Realizing that was not the case, the visitors responded with consecutive touchdown drives. They went 67 yards in nine plays, freshman phenom Terrance West scoring on a three-yard run, and 61 yards in 12 plays, West scoring on a 10-yard burst up the middle. He finished the regular season with 27 touchdowns.
Towson took the second-half kickoff and went 72 yards in eight plays for a 21-10 lead. Grant Enders hit Ryan with a 21-yard pass over the middle in the end zone.
URI stormed right back with a 49-yard drive, aided by a 15-yard face-mask penalty against the Tigers. Defensive tackle Willie McGinnis, inserted at running back in a goal-line situation, carried a gang of tacklers six yards for the touchdown with 7:21 left in the third period.
URI cornerback Evan Shields recovered a fumble at the Towson 44, but the Rams offense went three and out. Towson punted, URI crossed midfield, and Bentsen, after a double reverse and toss back, threw an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter. After an exchange of punts, the Tigers covered 40 yards in five plays. Ryan made a one-handed catch just over the goal line with 6:06 to play.
The Rams gave it one last try, but a Billy Morgan sweep on fourth-and-one at the URI 47 resulted in a seven-yard loss.
"Bad call because it didn't work," Trainer said.
And a perfect illustration of something he had said earlier. "It's kind of one of those years," Trainer said. "We'll look back and with the exception of JMU and Brown, we're in every game to the end and finding ways not to make plays."
The Tigers will learn who they play at 10 a.m. today during the NCAA FCS Playoff Selection Show on ESPNU. The team will hold a party on the first floor of the University Union Building. Students, faculty and staff, alumni and fans are invited to attend. The doors open at 9:30 a.m.
With the CAA's automatic bid, Towson will get a bye in the first round of the playoffs and play its first game on Dec. 3.
In addition to completing 20-of-26 passes for 212 yards, Enders led the Tigers in rushing against the Rams with 60 yards on nine carries. West carried 19 times for 52 yards. Ryan caught five passes for 65 yards.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times