Frisco, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The experience of being in a third consecutive NCAA Division I Football Championship Game is the glaring difference for North Dakota State against Towson this week.
What Towson players are experiencing for the first time throughout championship week are steps taken previously by the veteran Bison.
While Towson should take longer to settle into Saturday's championship game at Toyota Stadium (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the Tigers will get to a comfort level at some point. So the difference in the game ultimately will come down to the play on the field, and the two-time reigning champion Bison (14-0) have some distinct advantages over Towson (13-2), including one that's staring everyone in the face, although it's the part of the game that is too often overlooked: special teams.
North Dakota State's special teams have outperformed Towson's in almost every way this season.
"I think a lot of it has to do with as your football team matures, special teams are an indication of depth, speed and athleticism. Certainly, it's been important for us," two-time Eddie Robinson Award winner Craig Bohl said Friday, on the eve of his final game as NDSU's head coach. He was named Wyoming's new head coach on Dec. 8.
"The special teams plays are a third of the game. It's been a big, big weapon for us, and we hope to have it become a big weapon for us tomorrow."
The Bison advantage starts in the kicking game, and junior place-kicker Adam Keller and sophomore punter Ben LeCompte both kicked in last year's FCS title game. Keller, an All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first-team selection as a sophomore, has converted 9-of-12 field-goal attempts, with a long of 48 yards as well as 71-of-73 extra points. LeCompte has been even better, averaging 43.1 yards per punt, placing 23 of his 48 kicks inside an opponent's 20-yard line when earning second-team all-conference honors. He handles kickoffs as well, averaging 58.9 yards.
Towson place-kicker Drew Evangelista, a graduate student, has struggled on the shorter field goals, and though he has a 50-yarder this season, he is 5-for-12 overall as well as 68-for-72 on extra points. His backup, senior D.J. Soven, handles kickoffs, and is averaging 55.3 yards. Freshman Jake Ryder (38.6-yard average) and Evangelista (37.0) have lagged behind on punts, and the Tigers' net average is a mere 34.2 yards, or 4.5 yards less than LeCompte.
The difference on punt returns is absurd. North Dakota State junior Christian Dudzik has averaged 10.8 yards on 22 returns, returning two for touchdowns, while senior Ryan Smith, recently slowed by a hamstring injury, has averaged 21.7 yards on seven returns, including one touchdown. The Bison have gained 389 yards on punt returns. Meanwhile, on coverage, the Bison have surrendered nine yards - yes, nine - on seven returns by the opposition.
Towson doesn't thrive on punt returns, either. Junior Brian Dowling is averaging 3.7 yards on 14 returns. Overall, the Tigers have a 1.7-yard average.
Junior Derrick Joseph gives Towson much more hope on kick returns, averaging 23.8 yards - considerably better than his teammates - while scoring on one of his 34 returns. He was selected to the All-CAA Football third team.
But North Dakota State's impressive kick return options run deeper - a virtual Who's Who of deep threats. Junior John Crockett, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, has the most returns with 10, and a 26.5-yard average. Smith (42.4-yard average, one touchdown) and Dudzik (28.3-yard average) also are possibilities, as is All-America senior cornerback Marcus Williams, who has scored an FCS- record seven career touchdowns on returns (interceptions and kicks).
As for kickoff coverage, Towson's 16.8-yard average beats North Dakota State's 19.3-yard average. It's hardly enough of an advantage, though, as the Bison rank in the Top 10 nationally in kickoff returns, punt returns, net punting, punt return defense and blocked punts allowed.
"You go out there and you make a big play on special teams, it's really going to make that momentum go toward your side," Smith said. "That's what we try to do when we try to get a big return, a kick return or (playing) punt defense. Whether it's a big hit on kickoffs or punt, or just a long punt, blocked punt, too, we just try to make a big play out there and try to make a difference in the game on special teams."
Special teams have played a part into North Dakota State's first two FCS title wins - both over Sam Houston State.
In the 2011 championship game, the Bison's win was fueled by a fake punt early in the third quarter when they were trailing.
While not planned, the most memorable play in last year's championship game occurred right before halftime. LeCompte, the holder on an extra point, took a botched snap and lateraled the ball to Keller, who then scrambled and threw a lofty pass into the Sam Houston end zone that came down in the hands of Mike Hardie for two points - effectively putting an exclamation on the Bison's lead.