Reliving the rivalry
Many fans questioned Towson’s decision to play the Division 1-AA Delaware Blue Hens on Oct. 23, 1982, but then-Head Coach Phil Albert and his team took the chance.
At the time, the Towson Tigers were a Division II team.
“In terms of small college football, [Delaware] was the best of the East,” Director of Athletics Media Relations Dan O’Connell said. “It was kind of like, ‘Is Towson sure what they are doing here?’ because we hadn’t even been that good in Division II up until that point.”
Since that October 1982 game, which Towson lost in a 51-7 blowout, the rivalry with Delaware has crossed two divisions and two conferences in 14 different matchups over 31 years.
From 1982 to 2013, this series has featured upsets, games with national title implications, All-Americans, future NFL Pro Bowlers and one recent Super Bowl MVP.
Leading up to the 21st century, the schools had only met five times, with Delaware holding a 3-2 series lead.
Towson accepted an invitational to the Atlantic-10 starting in 2004 and met fellow conference opponent Delaware for the first time in 11 years.
Current Offensive Line Coach John Donatelli described the attitude toward Towson-Delaware rivalry in 2004.
“The program was just making a transition into the Atlantic-10, so the optimism was not [spread] about,” Donatelli said. “But it seems like no matter what the record is, no matter what stage the program was in, the Delaware games were the one game that we did not have to get our guys motivated for.”
Former Delaware Head Coach K.C. Keeler said that he was not expecting the games to be as close as they were, but his team, coming off a 2003 National Championship, split against Towson in 2004 and 2005.
In front of a homecoming crowd of 10,778 in 2005, which still stand as the third-highest attendance in Johnny Unitas Stadium history,
Towson finished off a 35-31 comeback victory with a touchdown run by running back Nick Williams with seconds remaining.
A quarterback named Joe Flacco etched his name into the rivalry in 2006 and 2007, passing for 615 yards in the two games. Towson quarterback Sean Schaefer was equally as efficient in those years, outpassing Flacco in a 2006 win at Delaware.
Flacco outdueled Schaefer in front of Ravens’ scouts at Johnny Unitas Stadium in 2007, but Keeler could sense the rivalry changing regardless. Towson had joined the Colonial Athletic Association in 2007 and was poised to compete at a higher level.
“Before, no one even thought of Towson as a rival. In the past, they could never really compete against Delaware in terms of recruiting, history and crowd size,” Keeler said. “I think it took Towson moving to the CAA to establish what kind of football they wanted to play.”
After a 2008 season that included a loss at Delaware, then-Head Coach Gordy Combs was fired and Rob Ambrose entered into the rivalry. Ambrose inherited a team that was struggling, and Delaware won the next two match ups by a combined score of 97-21.
By 2011, Ambrose had a full line of recruits in place, and Towson was ready to compete with the best in the CAA. In September of that year, Towson upset then-No. 20 Villanova, 31-10, in front of a large crowd at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
“I think that game set the tone for everyone looking at Towson and saying, ‘Oh, that’s a great win,’” Keeler said. “Rob came in and he had the benefit of the new facilities, he started putting together a good football team.”
The win sent shockwaves around the CAA community and made the 2011 matchup between Ambrose and Keeler even more intriguing.
That game occurred during Halloween weekend at Towson, but an impending snow storm put a large crowd in jeopardy.
However, some 8,000 fans braved the cold and wetness to watch the Blue Hens hand the Tigers their first conference loss of the season, 35-30.
Terrance West, a freshman at the time, had 155 yards and four touchdowns, but it was not enough to outweigh quarterback Grant Enders’s two interceptions and a kickoff return touchdown for the Blue Hens.
Ambrose said that although his team did not come out on top, it was a building experience.
“Even though we didn’t win, for us it was a stepping stone because the year before we were just destroyed,” Ambrose said. “We had played poorly in the years prior and we improved upon that.”
Towson went on to reach the 2011 FCS Playoffs, losing to Lehigh at home in the first round. The season, though, put Towson on notice for Delaware fans and others around the nation.
The Tigers headed up to Newark for last season’s game as a formidable threat for the first time ever but the Blue Hens did not make it easy.
It took overtime for the Tigers to come out of Delaware Stadium with a crucial CAA win.
Delaware trailed 27-24 late, but a last-second field goal tied the game and forced extra time. Towson took the first drive of overtime in for a touchdown by West and then forced an interception on
the next possession, giving it the fourth win at Delaware in school history.
To date, the series stands 9-5 in favor of the Blue Hens. The two teams meet Saturday at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
“We now have a consistent attitude about winning and I think we’ve earned respect,” Ambrose said. “I think our fan base and their attitude has grown with our success. I purely expect to have a
packed house on Saturday and for it to be very loud and for them to make it difficult for Delaware.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.