In the FCS Huddle: NDSU hopes defense can make West go south

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Philadelphia, PA ( - The prospect of facing a 2,000-yard rusher is supposed to rattle even the best of defenses.

Not North Dakota State.

And, yes, the Bison have possessed the best defense in the FCS for three straight years.

The two-time defending FCS national champions, who will try to make it three titles in a row Saturday when they take on Towson and star running back Terrance West in the national final in Frisco, Texas, have frustrated some big-time rushers along the way of their 42-2, three-year run.

NDSU has obliterated South Dakota State's two-time 2,000-yard rusher Zach Zenner in three meetings since November 2012, faced a 2,000-yard rusher in Wofford's Eric Breitenstein in last year's playoff and met an All-American tailback and the Southland Conference's all-time leading rusher in Sam Houston's Timothy Flanders in each of the last two national championship games.

There's been others, of course, but in those six games, the NDSU defense didn't allow a touchdown to the three outstanding runners. Only Breitenstein went over 100 yards.

West, however, figures to be an even bigger challenge for NDSU (14-0), having rushed for 2,410 yards while scoring 41 touchdowns - both FCS single-season records. With 85 career touchdowns in three seasons, he's a mere four shy of matching the FCS all-time record.

He's a bigger back at 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, and the underdog Tigers (13-2) are hoping 30-plus carries from the junior will wear on the Bison.

"Terrance is an exceptional runner," NDSU coach Craig Bohl said. "He's got excellent change of direction. He's able to break tackles. He's got good balance, great agility and great speed. All those things typically lend themselves into a talented running back, and that's what he is."

Add in the spark of 5-8, 210-pound freshman running back Darius Victor (618 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground), and Towson averages 248.9 rushing yards per game.

But the Bison lead the FCS in scoring defense (11.6 points per game), rushing defense (90.2 yards per game) and third-down percentage defense (.253), and rank second in total defense (238 yards per game).

Attention to detail with their assignments and a gang-tackling style are the major factors for the Bison defenders, most of whom have plenty of playoff and national championship game experience.

Nose guard Ryan Drevlow has had the best season on NDSU's defensive line, but the experienced depth there should allow the four-man front to remain effective for 60 minutes.

"They're a good defensive front, they play well as a unit," Towson All-America left tackle Eric Pike said. "Those guys are very well coached, they're always in position to make plays. And when they're in position to make plays, nine times out of 10, they're making those plays. That's why they've been so successful. Offensively, we just have to key into our responsibilities."

The linebackers could get a boost from the potential return of All-American Grant Olson (ACL tear) in the middle. If so, playoff standout Carlton Littlejohn will move back to the strongside position.

The secondary is among the best in the FCS, featuring three-time first-team All-American cornerback Marcus Williams. Expect the safeties to play up against the run until Towson shows it can beat the Bison with the pass.

"We appreciate how they play and how they operate," said Bohl, who will be coaching in his final game at NDSU. He was named Wyoming's new head coach on Dec. 8.

"I mean, they're going to run the football. They're very capable as far as throwing the football, and they have the elements of play-action pass with a really strong, physical assignment-conscious offensive line. So that is a great challenge. Their offense has a lot of similarities to our offense, not to say they're exactly alike, but they're probably more similar than anybody we've played all year. So it's going to be a great contest. We'll probably have a better feel of what's going on sometime in the second half."