Tigers prepare for FCS National Championship
After months of preparation, practice and a total of 15 games, Towson and Head Coach Rob Ambrose will get a shot at capturing the goal they set in early August: winning a national championship.
The Tigers have beaten Fordham, Eastern Illinois and Eastern Washington en route to an appearance in Frisco, Tx. and Toyota Stadium, the site of the Football Championship Subdivision Championship Game on Jan. 4.
Even Ambrose had to admit being in the moment and having a chance to make history is a great experience.
“Seriously, this is kind of cool. We’re practicing more than a [Division 1-A] bowl team,” Ambrose said. “How weird is this; that it’s [the New Year] and we’re still playing football?”
Playing in the national championship gives Towson the chance to win the school’s first ever Division-1 team title. This type of unchartered territory has caught the attention of the nation, something President Maravene Loeschke has taken notice of.
“I can’t even describe it, we are just wild with excitement around [Towson],” Loeschke said. “We are a little bit used to being on the national level with our academic program, but it’s fantastic to be up here with our football program. People know who we are, we’re on the charts and that makes everything rise to the top.”
Standing in the Tigers’ way is another storied football program in North Dakota State. The Bison have won the last two FCS Championships and won 23 consecutive games, matching them with Florida State as the only two teams left undefeated in Division-1.
North Dakota State cruised past New Hampshire, who Towson defeated 44-28 on Oct. 5, in the FCS semifinals by a 52-14 score. With such a storied program, Ambrose said the pressure falls more on North Dakota State to win its third straight national title.
“Let’s face it; in the history of 1-AA football, Towson is nobody from nowhere. There’s a whole lot of ‘who are these guys,’” Ambrose said. “They’re the undefeated team and haven’t lost in who knows when, so I suppose the pressure is on them.”
Led by Head Coach Craig Bohl, who will take over the same position at Wyoming next year, the Bison are 14-0 on the season after sweeping the Missouri Valley Conference. They have outscored opponents Furman, Coastal Carolina and New Hampshire by a combined 138-35 in the playoffs.
One of the keys to the success of North Dakota State has been its defense, which ranks second in the FCS. The defense has allowed opponents an average of just 11.6 points per game, leading the nation, and has recorded three shutouts on the season.
The top-ranked Bison defense will face off against the leading rusher in the nation, junior running back Terrance West. West has broken the single-season FCS record for rushing yards, all-purpose touchdowns and rushing touchdowns.
West, who has rushed for 2,410 yards and 40 touchdowns on the year, credits his offensive line for helping him reach those numbers.
“[The offensive line] are physical, they’re fast and they’re smart,” West said. “Most of my success is because of them. That’s where it starts, up front.”
Opposing defenses have added extra men to the line to stop West, but he has averaged 181.7 rushing yards in the three playoff games leading to Saturday. This average was helped by his FCS playoff-record 354 yards against Eastern Illinois in the quarterfinals.
“[West is] a powerful runner and his sees the field well and his offensive line blocks really well for him,” Bohl said. “For us to stay that we’re just going to go in there and eliminate them; that’s not very realistic. What we got to do is try the best we can to contain him.”
Similarly, the Bison boast the FCS’s seventh ranked rushing attack, led by two 1,000-yard rushers. Running backs Sam Ojuri and John Crockett have combined for just over 2,500 yards this season, including 19 touchdowns.
Towson will attempt to halt the North Dakota State rushing offense with a defense that has held opponents to 121.3 rushing yards a game in 2013.
Both teams share strengths in running the football and defending the run, a trend that many teams have abandoned in lieu of high-powered pass offenses. However, Ambrose said he thinks there’s a reason the Bison have been so successful and the Tigers will meet them in Frisco.
“There’s two ways to go about building this thing; one is to win a couple ball games and one is to win a national championship,” Ambrose said. “The team that has been right in there all the time is the team that can run the football and defend the run.”
If both rush offenses are shut down, the game could turn to a matchup between quarterbacks Brock Jensen of North Dakota State and senior Peter Athens of Towson. Athens leads Jensen with 3,194 passing yards, but Jensen holds the 33-19 advantage in touchdown passes.
However, Athens suffered an AC sprain in his shoulder during the semifinal game against Eastern Washington, and had to sit out the second half of that game. After going through tests this week, he was cleared to practice and was able to take first-team snaps throughout the week.
“Absolutely, no doubt [the extra week] helped to be able to get more treatment with our trainers. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to play for a national championship and I don’t want to miss it. I expect to be full go,” Athens said.
Sophomore quarterback Connor Frazier filled in for Athens and led Towson on its game-winning last drive against Eastern Washington. Ambrose said he is confident that if his team has to turn to Frazier, they can be successful.
Fans, alumni and students will be flying and driving into the Dallas area later this week for a chance to see Towson play in its first-ever FCS National Championship game.
“[Towson is] a major institution in a major metropolitan area. Baltimore has been waiting for his for a long time and Towson has been waiting for this,” Ambrose said. “Interestingly enough, there’s a whole lot more Towson graduates out there, and it’s great to be a part of.”
The Tigers will face off against the Bison on Saturday at Toyota Stadium. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
The Towerlight will be there, so check thetowerlight.com before, during and after the game for coverage.