FCS Championship Game
North Dakota State vs. Towson, Jan. 4, 2 p.m. (EDT), Frisco, Texas
When Towson coach Rob Ambrose began preparations for the FCS national championship, it’s likely the first tape he pulled of North Dakota State was its game with Northern Iowa back in early October.
Outside of FBS foe Kansas State, the Panthers were the only opponent to give the No. 1 seed Bison (14-0) a game this season. In fact, Northern Iowa led 23-10 entering the fourth quarter only to see North Dakota State rally for a 24-23 triumph at the Fargodome.
So Ambrose is hoping he can glean something, anything from Northern Iowa’s near victory. Lord knows, no one else has had success.
“North Dakota State is perfect, and it’s not just their record,” Ambrose told pressboxonline.com (a Baltimore, Md., website). “The program is perfect. Looking for holes on their offense, defense or special teams – they don’t have them. Their 11 players they put on the field are as good, if not better, at that position than anybody else in the country. There’s a reason they’re undefeated and have not lost a game in no one knows how long.”
By now, even the most casual college football fan has heard of North Dakota State. On January 4, the two-time national champions from the Missouri Valley Football Conference will go for a three-peat when they face Towson of the Colonial Athletic Association in Frisco, Texas. Only Appalachian State (2005-07) has managed to win three consecutive national titles.
* North Dakota State has won 23 straight games and is one victory shy of the longest winning streak in program history, a 24-game run (1964-66).
* The Bison won its three playoff games this season by a combined score of 138-35 and are 13-1 in FCS playoff history.
* During the regular season, NDSU outscored its opponents, 408-127.
Despite the announcement that head coach Craig Bohl will depart for Wyoming after the title game, the news hasn’t fazed the senior-laden Bison.
“We tried to park that because we’re on a mission,” said Bohl, following NDSU’s dismantling of New Hampshire, 52-14, in the semifinals.
But as a certain analyst on ESPN’s “College GameDay” might say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Towson (13-2), which defeated New Hampshire, 44-28, in the only comparison between the two teams won’t concede the title to North Dakota State. The Tigers have a few weapons themselves, namely running back Terrance West and a veteran offensive line led by All-American Eric Pike.
And it’s safe to say, North Dakota State’s playoff opponents – Furman (8-6), Coastal Carolina (12-3) and New Hampshire (10-5) – weren’t the caliber that Towson faced in the postseason. The Tigers knocked off Fordham, No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois and No. 3 seed Eastern Washington.
Towson’s victory at Eastern Washington came after the Tigers fell behind 31-21, playing with a backup quarterback and reeling from 31 unanswered points. But reserve quarterback Connor Frazier led Towson on two touchdown drives in the final 11 minutes to secure the victory. Frazier scored the winning TD on a one-yard sneak in the closing seconds.
“Belief, faith, trust, hard work. They’re pretty powerful things. You put them all together, you can accomplish things that people told you nobody (could) ever do,” Ambrose told The Baltimore Sun.
On paper, the championship pits Towson’s all-world running back West against NDSU’s stout No. 1-ranked run defense. A junior whom many believe will turn pro after the title game, West holds the FCS single-season rushing record with 2,420 yards, and he rushed for a playoff record 354 yards against Eastern Illinois. In addition, West has rushed for 100 yards in all but three games this season.
But the Bison thrive on stopping big-name running backs. They held South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner to minus-4 yards rushing this season, and they limited Coastal Carolina’s Lorenzo Taliaferro to 53 yards on 11 carries - one was 21 yards, too. Zenner and Taliaferro were only ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the nation, respectively.
It’s uncertain who will start at quarterback for Towson. Starter Peter Athens is questionable due to a shoulder injury suffered against Eastern Washington, but that could open the door for Frazier. And that might be a blessing.
While he hasn’t seen much time at quarterback, obviously a negative – especially against what figures to be a blitz-happy Bison defense - the athletic Frazier, a punter, wildcat specialist and wide receiver, has seen action elsewhere and his running ability (98 yards on 18 carries against Easter Washington) could complement West as another weapon for Towson.
But the Tigers’ best chance for an upset rests not with its offense, but its defense. It must have its best game of the season for Towson to have a shot. And that might be a tall task.
Towson is ranked 47th overall in total defense and an abysmal 101st against the pass. While North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen might not have the numbers of Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo or Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams, he is more than capable of shredding the Tigers’ D.
Jensen, the winningest quarterback in FCS history, is one of only eight active quarterbacks with 5,000 passing and 1,000 rushing yards in a career. He has directed the Bison to two straight national titles and has tons of experience.
If that’s not enough, North Dakota State also has two 1,000-yard rushers for the third straight season. Senior Sam Ojuri and junior John Crockett give the Bison a strong running attack.
While the Bison have put their three playoff games away early, they wear down opponents. They are first in time of possession and third-down conversions, and third down will be crucial for Towson. Against Northern Iowa, North Dakota State was just 7-of-19 on third downs – a key reason the contest was close.
And if that isn’t enough, Towson will have to overcome what figures to be a huge Bison following in Frisco. Ticket demand is reportedly high in Fargo for this one.
So how does it play out?
It will definitely be North Dakota State’s toughest playoff game this season – by far. Look for Towson to have some success on offense even against that stout run defense.
But the Tigers’ defense probably isn’t strong enough to limit North Dakota State to the 17-20-point range and that’s what it will take for a Towson upset.
Projected score: North Dakota State 31, Towson 17