By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
FRISCO, TX. — Though the Football Championship Subdivision settles its winner on the field, it isn’t every year that the best two teams end up playing in the NCAA Division I Football Championship game.
We are fortunate that North Dakota State and Towson have proven themselves far and away as the best of the best as those two teams line up on Saturday at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time to play for a Football Championship Subdivision crown at Toyota Stadium.
But having the best two teams on hand isn’t a given, even with the format of a 16, 20, or now 24-team playoff system.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
When North Dakota State needed to come up with big plays to hold off Wofford in the quarterfinals and Georgia Southern in the semifinals at home to just reach the title contest last year, it is an easy leap to say that one of those teams could have provided better competition for a championship game than Sam Houston State did in a crushing 39-13 loss.
For that matter, Towson — a squad many considered to be a championship contender last season — wasn’t even invited to the postseason by a myopic NCAA Division I selection committee.
In 2007, the biggest obstacle for Appalachian State to a third-consecutive national title was surviving James Madison for a 28-27 win in the first round. Pierre Banks recovered a Jamal Sullivan fumble that was forced by fellow linebacker Jacque Roman with 22 seconds left as JMU was setting up for a game-winning field goal attempt.
Just two years earlier in 2005, ASU might have been knocked out in the semifinals by Ingle Martin and Furman had it not been for a slip on a patch of ice near the goal line as the Paladin quarterback was bootlegging with no one between him and the end zone.
Martin had another chance to bring Furman back in the final seconds, but he was stripped of the ball for a fumble by Jason Hunter a moment before he could get a pass off as he drove the Paladins down the field. Omar Byrom recovered and the Mountaineers held on for a 29-23 victory.
James Madison needed a fumble by Furman’s Cedric Gipson at the goal line in the third period and a blocked field goal with 4:10 remaining in the fourth quarter just to keep in the game for quarterback Justin Rascati’s game-winning, 12-play, 74-yard drive for a 14-13 quarterfinal victory on the road.
In 2003, Western Illinois was subdued as much by a blizzard as by Colgate in a 28-27 loss in upstate New York. The Leathernecks likely would have matched up better with Delaware than Colgate did in a 40-0 championship loss two weeks later that remains as the most lopsided title game in history.
Major officiating blunders cost Villanova a shot at the final in 2002 more than McNeese State did, accounting for as much as a 17-point swing in the Wildcats’ 39-28 loss. Western Kentucky then dispatched McNeese State, 34-14, six days later, avenging an early-season loss to win the national title.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
For the 2013 season, however, the postseason has produced the best matchup we could have hoped for for a national championship game.
Top-seeded North Dakota State (14-0) has steamrolled through Furman (38-7), Coastal Carolina (48-14) and New Hampshire (52-14), winning by an average margin of 33 points per game on its way to a third consecutive title game — a feat matched only by Eastern Kentucky (1979-1982), Youngstown State (1991-1994), Marshall (1991-1993), Georgia Southern (1998-2000) and Appalachian State (2005-2007).
The Bison are trying to become just the second team to win three consecutive FCS crowns and can equal Appalachian State’s run with one more victory.
“They play football the way it is supposed to be played,” said Towson coach Rob Ambrose. “It’s team football, and it doesn’t matter who they put on the field, everybody knows their role and does it extremely well without fail. They run the ball well, and they are one of the best tackling teams I have seen on film in the last 20 years. They are not a great team, they are a great program.”
No. 7-seeded Towson (13-2) has defeated three top-10-ranked opponents, Fordham (48-28), Eastern Illinois (49-39) and Eastern Washington (35-31) to reach the title game for the first time.
The wins over Eastern Illinois and Eastern Washington came in snowy conditions on the road, giving the Tigers 12 consecutive road wins since a 38-22 loss at LSU in 2012.
Though technically considered a neutral-site contest, most of the 20,500 fans at Toyota Stadium will be rooting for the Bison, giving the game a road feel for Towson.
“I think (Towson is) excellent,” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said. “When I watch tape, I am not surprised that they made it here. They do things right and they are well-coached. They have a great running back and a really good defense, and we are going to have to give a really good effort to win.”
North Dakota State has won 23 consecutive games since losing 17-14 at home to Indiana State last season. A win over Towson would match the FCS record for consecutive wins, set by coach Al Bagnoli’s Penn Quakers from 1992-95.
The Bison are also trying to become the first undefeated FCS champions since Marshall did it in 1996, the final I-AA campaign for the Thundering Herd.
The title contest will be the final game in Bohl’s tenure as North Dakota State’s coach. He accepted the head coaching job at Wyoming a day after the Bison beat Furman in the second round of the playoffs.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose, meanwhile, has been mentioned as a likely candidate to take the open Massachusetts head coaching position. The president that hired Ambrose at Towson is now the president at UMass.
Both teams were part of the shocking opening weekend of college football when a record eight FCS squads took down FBS opponents.
Towson began that carnage with a 33-18 thrashing of Connecticut on the first night of the new season, with NDSU toppling No. 25 Kansas State, 24-21.
This season’s title clash matches teams that are stylistically similar, featuring physical play on both sides of the ball, tough defenses, a desire to control the ball on the ground and to compliment the running game with efficient passing.
It will mark the second lifetime meeting between the two teams, who played in the 1983 NCAA Division II quarterfinals. NDSU won that game, 24-17, on the way to the Bison’s first of five national championships in an eight-year span.
BREAKING DOWN THE BISON
It has been a dominating season for a senior-dominated North Dakota State squad, who have only been challenged a couple of times in winning 14 games.
The Bison had to rally from behind in the closing seconds for their three-point win over Kansas State and then scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 24-23 victory at home against Northern Iowa.
The Bison, led by gutsy senior quarterback Brock Jensen, have built a reputation for coming up big in clutch situations, but NDSU hasn’t had a close game since early October, a fact that could hurt this championship team if this game is close at the end.
Towson, meanwhile, played tight games often in the tough Colonial Athletic Association and had to come from 10 points behind in the fourth quarter for a 35-31 victory over Eastern Washington in the FCS semifinals.
Jensen has turned in his most consistent performance as a passer, ranking fourth nationally in passing efficiency with 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. He also is a tough runner, with 459 yards for a 4.8 average and nine TDs, including that game-winner against Kansas State.
The NDSU backfield features two 1,000-yard rushers, with the one-two punch of Sam Ojuri (1,314) and John Crockett (1,191), both averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry.
The Bison are seventh nationally in rushing offense, averaging 261 yards per game. 13th in total offense (466 yards) and ninth in scoring (39 points). NDSU also leads the country in time of possession at 34 minutes per game.
Jensen has two outstanding targets to look for in the passing game with big-play receiver Zach Vraa (64 catches, 1,140 yards, 14 TDs, 17.8 yards per catch) and possession man Ryan Smith (51, 670, 13.1, five).
Near the goal line, Jensen likes to look for tight end Kevin Vaadeland, who has nine touchdowns among his 19 receptions.
The offensive line, led by senior left tackle Billy Turner, only allowed 18 sacks (24th nationally) and is exceptional in run blocking. NDSU is also helped by the blocking of its receivers downfield in the run game.
The Bison are first in two interesting categories, third-down conversions and third-down defense, averaging 56.1% in picking up third downs and 25.3% in stopping those conversions.
While the balanced offense has made NDSU even more lethal on offense this season, defense has been the Bison’s calling card throughout the championship years.
North Dakota State is tops in rushing defense (90 yards allowed per game), second in total defense (248 yards), second in pass efficiency defense and sixth in passing yards allowed (157 yards).
All-American cornerback Marcus Williams is the biggest name on the NDSU defense and is expected to be drafted by the NFL in the middle rounds next April.
Safety Christian Dudzik has a team-high six interceptions, including five in the past five games.
NDSU has a solid linebacking corps with Carlton Littlejohn, Travis Beck and Grant Olson, though Olson has been slowed at the end of the season with a knee injury.
One of the biggest strengths of the Bison is the ability to get constant pressure on quarterbacks, with defensive ends Kyle Emmanuel (team-leading 7.5 sacks) and Cole Jirik and Ryan Drevlow among the players to keep an eye on.
In special teams, place kicker Adam Keller has developed into one of the more dependable players on the Bison roster, hitting 9-of-12 field goals attempts.
Ben LeCompte is averaging 43.1 yards per punt and the Bison are eighth nationally in net punt average (38.7).
NDSU is third in kickoff returns and eighth in punt returns in FCS. If the Bison need to, Williams has seven career returns for touchdowns as a return specialist and on interceptions.
THOUGHTS ON THE TOWSON TIGERS
There isn’t a more dynamic offensive player in FCS than junior running back Terrance West, who has shattered numerous records for rushing and scoring this season.
West cracked Jamaal Branch of Colgate’s 2003 single-season rushing mark with 2,420 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and smashed Omar Cuff of Delaware’s marks for rushing touchdowns, total TDs and scoring. West has 40 TDs on the ground and 41 overall for an astounding 246 points.
He almost single-handedly destroyed the Eastern Illinois defense with a playoff-rushing record of 354 yards on 39 carries.
West runs behind one of the best FCS lines in some time, featuring a pair of NFL prospects in Eric Pike and Randall Harris. Doug Shaw is one of the top centers in FCS.
Towson ranks 10th in rushing (249 yards), 12th in total offense (473 yards) and 11th in scoring (38.5 points per game). The Tigers are third in third-down conversions at 50.3%.
West is backed up by speedster Darius Victor, a freshman who rambled for 618 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns, including 105 yards in the win against Fordham.
Emmanuel Holder is one of the top blocking fullbacks in FCS and can also be a threat in the passing game as a sure-handed receiver.
But a bigger key for the Tigers will be the effectiveness of quarterback Peter Athens, who was sidelined late in the first half against Eastern Washington with a strain to the AC joint of his right throwing shoulder.
Athens has practiced effectively with the first team offense since last Saturday and reports no pain.
The efficient senior quarterback was a question mark heading into the season as a replacement for multi-talented signal-caller Grant Enders, who graduated with back-to-back CAA championships.
But Athens has answered the call with 3,194 yards passing, with 19 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. But nine of those picks came in the first half of the season and Athens has seemed to grow more confident as he has played more.
Athens was 8-of-9 for 144 yards before the injury two weeks ago, has three games with over 300 yards passing this season and is 12th nationally in passing efficiency.
He is backed up by sophomore Connor Frazier, who has shown effectiveness as a wildcat quarterback, with 23 carries for 138 yards rushing in the past two games.
Frazier led two touchdown drives in the final quarter to lead Towson to the comeback against Eastern Washington and scored the game-winning TD on a quarterback sneak with 17 seconds remaining.
Athens and Frazier have some effective receivers to target, despite injuries that have depleted the ranks.
Andre Dessenberg (21.3 yards per catch), Brian Dowling and Derrick Joseph have all come up big in the playoffs.
James Oboh can be a significant threat at tight end with 24 catches for a 14.8 average and four TDs.
Towson may not be the shutdown type of unit that North Dakota State is, but the Tigers have been a bend-but-not-break group.
TU allows only 121 yards rushing (15th nationally), but is 101st in passing yards allowed (247 yards) and ranks 34th in scoring defense (23.2 points per game) and 47th in total defense (368 yards).
But there are individual stars scattered through this unit.
Defensive end Ryan Delaire has a team-high 11.5 sacks, while Telvion Clark leads the squad in tackles with 139 (9.3 per game) and safety Donnell Lewis has a team-high four interceptions, including the one that finished off the win against EWU.
Two of Towson’s cornerbacks are considered NFL prospects, All-American senior Jordan Love and junior Tye Smith.
If Towson has any weaknesses, it is in a couple of areas. The Tigers struggle at times with turnovers and can have meltdowns in the special teams area.
Kickers Drew Evangelista (5-of-7) and D.J. Soven (2-of-3) can be inconsistent, while Evangelista and freshman Jake Ryder have combined to average just 37 yards per punt.
Joseph has the ability to break kickoff and punt returns for scores, but the Tigers rank near the bottom in yardage stats in both categories.