Tom Flacco was too much for The Citadel.
After torching the Bulldogs last season, Towson's quarterback broke Citadel hearts on a rainy Saturday afternoon before 8,008 fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
Flacco hit passes of 26 and 17 yards, then sprinted 25 yards to set up the winning touchdown, a 4-yard plunge by Shane Simpson with 1:27 left. The 12th-ranked Tigers escaped with a 28-21 win over The Citadel in the season opener for both teams.
"It's a long season," Citadel linebacker Willie Eubanks III said outside a quiet locker room. "This one game is not going to define our season."
The Citadel, which lost 44-27 to Towson last season, came much closer this time. The Bulldogs took a 21-20 lead on Brandon Rainey's 9-yard TD pass to Raleigh Webb on third down with 3:31 to play, sending the Corps of Cadets into a frenzy.
But Citadel coach Brent Thompson was aware that 3½ minutes is a lot of time to leave for Flacco, who hit 21 of 36 passes for 328 yards and plays behind a line that averages 317 pounds.
"I knew I left him a lot of time on the clock," said Thompson, who saw Flacco account for 435 yards and four TDs last year. "That was an 18-play drive, and we needed to score at some point. It was a third-down situation. We just couldn't get a stop there when we needed one."
The Citadel ran 74 plays to 59 for Towson and kept the ball away from Flacco for 38 minutes, 11 seconds out of 60 minutes. Rainey ran for 166 yards and a TD, and the Bulldogs totaled 329 rushing yards.
Those are winning numbers in a lot of games, but it wasn't enough to overcome crucial Citadel mistakes in this one. Fullback Clay Harris' fumble on The Citadel's second offensive play of the season set up an easy TD for Towson's first score, the first of three Bulldog turnovers.
An illegal block penalty wiped out a 13-yard Rainey TD that would have knotted the score at 7 in the first quarter. Instead, The Citadel missed a 45-yard field goal, then fell behind 10-0.
"I've got to get better," said Rainey, who lost a fumble himself and was intercepted late after Towson's game-winning TD. "I've got to not turn the ball over, and I had two today. That cost us big time."
The Citadel played true freshmen Andy Davis and Jay Girdner in the secondary, and it was Girdner's huge hit that gave the Bulldogs a chance in the fourth quarter.
With his team up 17-14, Towson receiver Shane Leatherbury had the ball in the end zone for a TD, but the 5-10, 184-pound Girdner belted him from behind to pop out the ball.
Towson had to settle for a 25-yard field goal and a 20-14 lead with 12:43 to play, setting up The Citadel's go-ahead drive.
"Overall, we played the way we wanted on occasion," Thompson said. "The No. 1 thing that hurt us in the first half was taking those points off the board. We should have had at least three points on that drive, and you can't do that against a good football team like Towson.
"We do have a lot of grit. We were able to come back and put drives together. It was more about us doing little things a little bit better to help us beat Top 15 teams like Towson."
• Thompson lamented a lack of big plays on offense. Rainey's 55-yard run to set up his own TD in the second quarter was the Bulldogs' longest play, and it was the only one over 19 yards. The Citadel averaged 4.7 yards per rush, and Rainey was 3 of 4 passing for 24 yards with one TD and one interception.
• Sophomore safety Chris Beverly led the Bulldogs with seven tackles and saved The Citadel after Rainey lost a fumble at his own 27. Beverly cracked a Towson receiver at the goal line to force a fumble recovered by Eubanks.
That set up an epic 19-play, 88-yard drive that took 8:31 off the block and got The Citadel to within 17-14 at halftime on fullback Emeka Nwanze's first career TD, a 1-yard plunge with 40 seconds left.
• Transfer linebacker Airan Reed had five tackles for The Citadel, and transfer running back Remus Bulmer carried four times for 21 yards. Bulmer also returned two kickoffs for 42 yards. True freshmen who saw the field included Davis, who started at safety for the injured Destin Mack, and Girdner along with defensive tackle Dewey Greene IV, linebacker Logan Braucht and defensive tackle Hasan Black.
• The Citadel will try to rebound next week at No. 21 Elon, which opened against No. 19 North Carolina A&T on Saturday.