A rout appeared imminent when Howard University took a 20-point lead over Towson midway through the second quarter yesterday. The game did end up as a blowout, but in a way that few expected.
Towson quarterback Joe Lee, a senior from Warren County High School in Virginia, picked apart Howard's defense with a variety of short passes. He completed 34 of 55 for 431 yards and four touchdowns to help Towson score 35 consecutive points and send the Bison to a 49-33 loss before 1,835 at Greene Stadium.
Lee's efforts and those of running back Jason Corle, who rushed for 85 yards and three touchdowns, and caught 10 passes for 113 yards, enabled the Tigers to overcome a huge offensive game by the Bison. With Roy Anderson at quarterback in place of injured starter Bobby Townsend, who has a sprained foot, they racked up 614 yards. The Bison also got terrific efforts from running back Jermaine Hutchinson (166 yards rushing and four touchdowns, which tied a school record) and wide receiver Elijah Thurmon (six catches for 135 yards).
The Bison (2-4) moved the ball almost at will during the first half, compiling 370 yards by halftime, and taking a 27-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
But Towson (5-2) scored on its next possession, then took advantage of two of Anderson's four interceptions to score 28 consecutive points and take a 42-27 lead one second into the fourth quarter.
"They just kind of blitzkrieged us," Howard Coach Steve Wilson said. "The momentum changed. We didn't want to get into a track meet, but after the turnovers, we kind of got into that."
Anderson completed 14 of 33 for 315 yards and one touchdown, but he tried to force several passes in the second half.
Meantime, Lee took over. He stuck with the short passes all game long, neutralizing Howard's blitz, and showed Howard why he led Division I-AA in passing yardage (2,131) entering the game. The Bison also had no sacks after totaling 22 in their first five games.
"We tried to spread them out," said Lee, who has completed 184 of 327 passes for 2,562 yards, 15 touchdowns and 4 interceptions this season. "They were bringing a lot of heat early early, but we [threw short], and they had to get out of it. The offensive line did a great job, and I was hit maybe once."
The lack of a pass rush put too much pressure on Howard's young secondary.
"There was a lot of confusion on the coverage," said cornerback Omar Evans, who had two interceptions. "There were all freshman out there, except for [Evans], and they're very young."
After Howard took a 27-7 lead with 6 minutes 46 seconds left in the first half, Towson drove 80 yards in seven plays and scored on Lee's 11-yard touchdown pass to Justin Mattera with 4:09 left in the first half.
Howard's next three possessions ended with a punt, the end of the first half and an incomplete pass on fourth down. Towson then drove 75 yards in seven plays, cutting the margin to 27-21 on Lee's seven-yard touchdown pass to Mike Deal with 6:59 left in the third quarter.
Howard had to punt again after three plays, but this time Towson took possession on a fair catch at Howard's 46-yard line. The Tigers easily cashed in that opportunity, with Jason Corle giving them the lead on a seven-yard touchdown with 3:34 left in the third quarter.
Three plays later, Towson lineman John Devoti picked off an Anderson pass and returned it 10 yards to the Howard 39. Three plays later, Lee threw a 10-yard touchdown to Corle for a 35-27 lead.
Then came the big turnover just three plays later. Dennis Cliggett picked off an Anderson pass at the Towson 49 and returned it 50 yards to the Bison 1-yard line. Corle ran it in on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 42-27 lead.
Everything had gone Howard's way early. The Bison recovered a fumble and blocked a punt and kept running Hutchinson in every direction. He scored three touchdowns in the first half, the final one coming with 6:46 left in the second quarter to give Howard the 27-7 lead.
"In the second half, we just started falling apart," Hutchinson said.