Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - North Dakota State's win over New Hampshire in the FCS semifinals propelled the Bison to their third consecutive national championship game appearance, and a chance to become the second program to ever post a title three-peat.
But, believe it or not, the game might have helped Towson more than it did North Dakota State.
The Bison (from the Missouri Valley Football Conference) and Tigers (of the Colonial Athletic Association) come from different regions of the country, and typically don't share similar opponents.
So for Towson coach Rob Ambrose and his Tigers squad, the fact that his team can compare the Bison against a New Hampshire team (also from the CAA) that Towson defeated, 44-28, on Oct. 5 is a huge asset when looking to game plan for an otherwise unseen and unknown North Dakota State program.
"We got to see what they can do at home versus one of the teams that we've played and one of the teams that's earned national respect over the last decade," Ambrose said. "So it was educational. I think we have a better handle on some of the teams that they've played now since we've had a chance to play some of these teams, but a lot of this is new."
That's very true. A lot of this is new for Towson, a program that had never won an FCS playoff game before this season, let alone earn a trip to the national championship game.
Ambrose took Towson from a 1-10 record in 2010 to the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2011, where the Tigers fell to Lehigh, 40-38.
The only win in Towson's 2010 season came in five overtimes versus Coastal Carolina on Sept. 11. From there, the team lost nine straight games to close out the regular season.
But in 2011, with the help of star freshman running back Terrance West, Towson won its first three games before dropping an Oct. 1 contest to FBS Maryland. The Tigers went on two more three-game winning streaks and never lost two games in a row that season.
Ambrose joked about the means in which he used to turn the 1-10 squad into a playoff contender, but recognized the work put in by his players and coaches, who he said never stopped believing.
"Big bowl of tricks and a magic hat," Ambrose said. "No, just a whole lot of hard work by a ton of people inside and outside the program, people that were relentless and believed. Even on the dark and hard days when you couldn't really see any of the growth, everybody kept grinding, kept working, kept believing, kept building and stayed the course. It was something special. It really is."
He added that if his team wins the national championship game against North Dakota State, the next goal and step for him would be to take a screenshot of everything the Bison program has accomplished in the last 10 seasons and try to replicate it. To Ambrose, as well as many other coaches at the FCS level, North Dakota State is the standard for the way football should be played.
For North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl, there is still one more thing to accomplish at the FCS level before he leaves for his new Wyoming coaching position: one last national championship.
The only other FCS program in history to win three consecutive national title games was Appalachian State from 2005-07. For Bohl, there is a certain amount of familiarity from being to two title games already and what the process entails. But since he knows this will be his last, there are bittersweet feelings about being back in Fargo.
"Well, this is certainly a unique group of student-athletes that I've had the privilege to coach in the last 11 years," Bohl said. "What this group and our coaches have been able to do all along and particularly during this playoff stretch is be focused at the mission at hand. This is about the 2013 season. My opportunity to reflect on what the next chapter of coaching is has not come about. ... I'm sure after the game, win or lose, I'll have some reflective moments. But right now we're very focused on the task at hand, and that is defeating Towson."
There's no question Bohl's Bison are playing spectacular football during this playoff run. The distance between North Dakota State and its opposition has grown in the score with each postseason week.
The Bison defeated Furman in the second round by 31 points, then Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals by 34, and New Hampshire in the semis by 38. A team that normally prides itself on defense and limiting an opposing attack has its game clicking on all cylinders at the absolute right time.
When Bohl announced his decision to leave NDSU for Wyoming in early December, some thought it would have an adverse affect on his players and their run at another national title.
Well, the opposite happened, and Bohl's players are performing at the highest level they've been at all season. One last go-around for the future Hall of Famer.
"I think it helped to have a pretty senior-laden football team," Bohl said. "I think we're playing the best football we've played all year right now. That was even after I made this announcement. So that's a real tribute to those players and our coaches."
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the FCS national championship game:
Saturday, Jan. 4
No. 7 seed Towson (13-2) at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (14-0)
Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Game Notes: It seems almost unfair, doesn't it?
Not just the fact North Dakota State has won 23 consecutive games dating back to the 2012 season, but the way in which the Bison have been simply dismantling opponents in the playoffs this season just screams outrageous.
That's the legacy coach Craig Bohl has built, and the one he will depart when he takes over as the Wyoming coach at the culmination of the 2013 title game. This Bison team has all the tools to win a third consecutive national championship, and they've shown it in three consecutive playoff contests by outscoring the opposition 138-35 in that three-game span.
North Dakota State easily handled New Hampshire in the national semifinals in Fargo by downing the Wildcats, 52-14, despite the fact New Hampshire jumped out ahead on an interception return for a touchdown that quieted the raucous Fargodome crowd. The Bison scored 52 unanswered points and didn't allow New Hampshire to see the end zone again until late in the fourth quarter.
And that defense. Oh, that spectacular defense allowing just 11.6 points per game, which has risen over the last two matchups by surrendering 14 points to both Coastal Carolina and New Hampshire. Even without starting linebacker Grant Olson (ACL tear), the Bison have managed to lead the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense (90.2 yards per game) and third-down percentage defense (.253), and are second in total defense (238 yards per game). And, get this, Olson is preparing to play in the national championship game.
But that won't stop Towson from staying competitive.
As we've seen throughout the season and have come to expect from the immensely talented junior, Terrance West doesn't back down to any team. In fact, the Walter Payton Award finalist relishes the opportunity to prove himself against worthy opponents.
Just look at his FCS record-setting game against second-seeded Eastern Illinois in the national quarterfinals. The attention was on Jimmy Garoppolo and the high-flying Panthers offense in Charleston, Ill. But West stole the show with 354 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the road win. It's in his nature to play up to the skill level of the opposition. If that's true, get ready for a one-in-a-million day on Jan. 4.
That's the matchup to watch in the championship game: West (who leads the FCS with 2,410 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns) versus the best run defense in the country.
But perhaps the underrated story in this championship game is the fact North Dakota State's offense has been playing just as well, if not better than the team's defense. Quarterback Brock Jensen has thrown for 582 yards and seven touchdowns this postseason, not to mention his ability to make plays with his legs in the ground game. And both Sam Ojuri and John Crockett have exploded out of the backfield for the Bison, each rushing for over 250 yards in three playoff wins.
Or perhaps the story is the play of Towson's other offensive commodities. Sure, West had a solid day on paper against Eastern Washington in the national semifinals with 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns. But for those who really paid attention, the Eagles effectively limited West on quite a few of his 27 carries, especially when starting quarterback Peter Athens went down near the end of the first half with a shoulder injury. The Tigers turned to wide receiver Connor Frazier, who served as the team's backup signal caller, to lead the way in the second half. It made the play calling for West much more predictable.
However, Towson pulled out the victory with some last-minute heroics from Frazier in the passing game. With players like receiver Brian Dowling, tight end James Oboh and freshman running back Darius Victor, the Tigers become much more than an obvious rushing team looking to get West his 30 carries a game.
Towson is a strong team defensively, ranking third in the FCS with 18 fumbles recovered and fourth with 34 turnovers gained. Having won seven of its last eight games and outplaying strong offensive squads like Fordham, Eastern Illinois and Eastern Washington to make it to the national finals, it's clear Towson deserves to be on this stage with North Dakota State.
The right teams are vying for the title of the best in the FCS in 2013 at Frisco's Toyota Stadium. North Dakota State has the history, going for a third consecutive championship, and the more complete team. Towson has the best overall playmaker and the playoff pedigree to get the job done. In the end, both teams have the tools to be our national champions.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: North Dakota State 35, Towson 30.