FCS National Championship Game: Previewing North Dakota State vs. Towson

Alan BlackAnalyst IIIDecember 31, 2013

Dec 20, 2013; Fargo, ND, USA; North Dakota State Bison head coach Craig Bohl smiles during the fourth quarter against the New Hampshire Wildcats at FargoDome. North Dakota State defeated New Hampshire 52-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Before Auburn and Florida State face off in Pasadena on January 6 to determine the BCS national champion, the FCS level of college football will crown its champion.

On the Saturday before the BCS National Championship Game, North Dakota State and Towson will battle it out to determine the national champion at the second-highest level of college football.

Unlike their FBS counterparts, these two title hopefuls have earned their way into the championship game by making it through a 24-team playoff.

Let's take a look at the biggest game of the year in FCS football.

When: Saturday, January 4, 2 p.m. ET

Where: Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas

Who: North Dakota State University Bison, Towson University Tigers


How Towson Got Here

The Tigers are 13-2 so far this season, with both losses coming in conference play. That led them to a second-place finish in the CAA, behind only Maine. Towson's first game of the season hinted at the greatness to come, as the Tigers took down FBS team UConn 33-18. 

In the playoffs, the Tigers got their first playoff win in 29 years by beating Fordham 48-28 in the second round after receiving a first-round bye. That was followed up with an impressive 49-39 quarterfinals victory on the road over Eastern Illinois and Walter Payton Award winner Jimmy Garoppolo.

That set up a semifinals matchup on the red turf of the Eastern Washington Eagles. Despite jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first half, the Tigers found themselves trailing with less than a minute left in the game and their starting QB Peter Athens out with an injury sustained earlier in the game. WR/RB/QB Connor Frazier stepped in and led the Tigers on a 71-yard drive that culminated in his 1-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds to give Towson the 35-31 win and trip to the championship game.


How North Dakota State Got Here

By being the most dominant team in all of college football, quite frankly. The two-time defending champion Bison are riding a 23-game winning streak and are a perfect 14-0 on the season so far. NDSU has an otherworldly record of 42-2 over the last three seasons. 

Head coach Craig Bohl will be leaving to become the head coach at Wyoming, but not before leading the Bison in their quest for a third-straight national championship.

NDSU started off the season with a 24-21 victory over Big XII team Kansas State, which can't really be considered an upset due to NDSU's recent dominance as a football team. The only other team to stay within single digits of the Bison on the season was Northern Iowa, who took NDSU to the wire before the Bison pulled out a 24-23 win.

The Bison have practically cruised through the playoffs, winning all three games by at least 30 points each. Furman, Coastal Carolina and New Hampshire were all no match for NDSU, and it remains to be seen if any FCS team can compete with the Bison currently.


Players to Watch

Dec 13, 2013; Charleston, IL, USA;  Towson Tigers running back Terrance West (28) scores a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Eastern Illinois Panthers at O'Brien Field. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Terrance West, Towson RB

As impressive as North Dakota State has been, the single most dominant player on the field in Frisco will be wearing a Towson jersey. Terrance West had the best season of any running back in all of Division I football, putting up video game numbers.

The workhorse back has carried an absurd 391 times for 2,410 yards and 40 touchdowns. West broke the FCS single-season record for both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, and has a chance to add to his record-setting season even more.

In the quarterfinals matchup against Eastern Illinois, West broke an FCS record with 356 yards rushing.

West is a strong, physical runner and could be a worthy adversary for even the vaunted NDSU defense. He finished third in the Walter Payton Award voting, although there is a strong case to be made that he deserved to win the award.

In addition to his running abilities, West is also a capable pass-catcher out of the backfield. He has hauled in 21 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown.


Marcus Williams, NDSU CB

The three-time first-team All-American is the top shutdown corner in the FCS and should force the Tigers to rely even more heavily on West than usual. Thanks to Williams' cover abilities, the Bison can afford to stack the box against the run. Williams could very well be the key to shutting down Towson's offense.


Brock Jensen, NDSU QB

Jensen is the FCS equivalent of Alabama's AJ McCarron. He is the longtime, always-reliable QB of a rushing-oriented team with multiple national championships. Jensen is now the FCS record holder for most career wins, with a 47-5 record during his time as a Bison.

The Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year also finished fourth in the Walter Payton Award voting, by displaying the same consistency he has throughout his career.

Jensen has thrown for 2,658 yards and 33 touchdowns so far this season, while tossing only seven picks. He also used his legs to help lead the offense, amassing 459 yards and nine touchdowns on 96 carries.

With Jensen under center, it will be very difficult for the Towson defense to force mistakes by NDSU's deceptively powerful offense.


Major Storylines for the Game

Will NDSU's Rushing Defense or Towson's Rushing Attack Win Out?

In the battle of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object, the nation's leading rusher takes on the top-ranked rushing defense in the country. Towson is averaging 177 yards per game on the ground, 160 of which belong to West. NDSU, meanwhile, is allowing only 68 yards rushing per game. Something has to give, which will it be?


Can Towson Stop NDSU's Rushing Attack?

It's easy to get distracted by the dominant NDSU defense and lose sight of the fact that the Bison have a pretty potent rushing attack themselves. NDSU averages 180 yards rushing per game, even better than Towson. The backfield tandem of Sam Ojuri and John Crockett has combined for 2,563 yards and 19 touchdowns. Both Ojuri and Crockett have rushed for over 1,200 yards apiece.

Towson's rushing defense, meanwhile, hasn't exactly been dominant. The Tigers are allowing 120 yards per game and have faced few rushing attacks nearly as powerful as NDSU's. If the Tigers can't figure out a way to slow down the Bison backs, Ojuri and Crockett can quickly put a game out of reach while eating up the clock.


Is Bohls' Head in the Game, or Is He Looking Ahead?

NDSU head coach Craig Bohls has put together a Hall of Fame-worthy 12 years in Fargo. He took the Bison from a Division II powerhouse to an FCS juggernaut that regularly takes down FBS foes. There's no denying that his NDSU program is to be considered a dynasty. 

The downside to his dominance at the helm of the Bison is that there is nothing left for Bohls to prove.  The outcome of this game will have little bearing on his legacy.

That begs the question: Is Bohls looking ahead to his impending tenure at Wyoming? He is expected to take most of his coaching staff along with him to Laramie, and it would be easy for him and his staff to put forth less than a full effort in preparing for this game. If Bohls turns down the effort for this game, he could go out on a sour note.


Prediction: North Dakota State 42, Towson 21

While Terrance West is the best running back a coach could ask for, he simply isn't enough to counter how truly dominant NDSU is as a whole. The Tigers may be able to hang close for a quarter or two, but look for the Bison to eventually wear down their foe and pull away.


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