The North Dakota State Bison send Craig Bohl out a winner, again
By Matthew Postins
FRISCO — North Dakota State’s 35-7 win over Towson in the FCS National Championship game at Toyota Stadium on Saturday seemed like a fitting ending to the Bison’s three years of dominance.
In fact it was the end for the 24 seniors that will leave Fargo this spring and for head coach Craig Bohl, who will try his hand in Wyoming next season. All will leave with three national championship rings.
None of that means the Bison can’t return to Frisco in 2015 and win an unprecedented fourth straight FCS championship. No, the recruiting pipeline is clearly full and the elevation of defensive coordinator Chris Klieman to head coach should uphold the high standard that Bohl and his seniors have set.
But Saturday’s victory underscored just how special this three-year run has been for the Bison. For the first time during this three-year championship run NDSU went undefeated in a season.
“It’s one I’ll always remember,” NDSU senior quarterback Brock Jensen said. “It’s really special. It’s gets better every time you win it. I tried to soak it all in. It’s the last time I’ll put on a Bison jersey and it’s been a fun ride.”
Towson (13-3), making its first FCS National Championship game appearance, proved a game opponent for more than a quarter. But Towson’s mistakes, including a blocked field goal and a turnover, allowed the Bison (15-0) to take a 21-7 halftime lead. The Bison was never threatened after that.
Towson’s All-American back, Terrence West, became the first back in FCS history to rush for 2,500 yards in a season. But West’s record proved a footnote to the Bison’s third straight coronation.
In the past three seasons NDSU has gone 43-2, including a 14-0 record in the FCS playoffs. Bohl has done it largely with a core group of players recruited four to five years ago, including quarterback Brock Jensen, who was this game’s Most Valuable Player. But plenty more Bison will leave Fargo with three title rings, including defensive end Cole Jirik, cornerback Marcus Williams, running back Sam Ojuri and left tackle Billy Turner.
All played a key role on Saturday. Jensen threw for 135 yards and a touchdown while rushing for another. Ojuri gained 84 yards and scored a touchdown. Turner kept Jensen well insulated from pressure all afternoon, as Jensen wasn’t sacked. Williams had three tackles and broke up two passes. Jirik had two tackles, a sack and broke up a pass.
Before Saturday the only other team to win three straight FCS championships was Appalachian State from 2005-07.
“They (NDSU’s seniors) have persevered a lot,” NDSU head coach Craig Bohl said. “They came here after a 3-8 year and to flip it around speaks volumes about their character. They’re a remarkable group.”
The game hinged on two Towson possessions in the second quarter, both of which led to NDSU points.
The Tigers had a chance to take the lead in the second quarter as kicker D.J. Soven lined up a 41-yard field goal. But NDSU’s Colten Heagle blew in from Soven’s left and blocked the kick. Fellow Bison Kyle Emanuel picked up the football and returned it 59 yards to the Towson 5-yard line. From there, NDSU needed one play, a 5-yard run by Ryan Smith, to take a 14-7 lead with 4:43 left in the second quarter.
“I’d say (it was a huge play),” Towson head coach Rob Ambrose said. “It was a legit 10 point swing. I think everyone figured that out. We made a mistake and they made us pay for it. We all know what kind of game it was then and it was moving in the right direction for us. Head to head it was pretty even. They’re (NDSU) prefect and the margin for error is small. We made an error and they made us pay for it.”
Towson tried to respond, but it ended in a turnover. Towson quarterback Peter Athens went deep from the NDSU 45 but he overthrew his intended receiver. Bison corner C.J. Smith picked it off and returned it to the Towson 43. The Bison made Towson pay for that mistake, too, as Jensen hooked up with Zach Vraa for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 1:05 left in the second quarter to give NDSU a 21-7 lead.
“I thought those were key plays,” Bohl said. “Towson is talented on offense and we were hanging in there but they were moving the ball. For us to cause those two (mistakes) and score that created a ton of energy and momentum. That was really special.”
NDSU added a 9-yard touchdown run by Jensen in the third quarter and a 1-yard touchdown run by Ojuri in the fourth.
Towson gave up a 2-yard touchdown run to NDSU’s John Crockett in the first quarter, but answered right back with West, who helped the Tigers drive the field, capped by West’s 3-yard touchdown run at the end of the first quarter. That represented the only tie of the game.
West ended up with 99 yards rushing, but NDSU limited his impact on the game, making the top back in FCS earn every yard he gained. The Tigers needed to keep the Bison defense on the field, but saw their third-down conversion rate drop as the game went on, ending 7-of-19 on third down. That, plus 10 penalties, stymied some potential scoring drives. The Bison also sacked Athens three times, and Towson’s offensive line had only given up 12 sacks all season.
But by the end of the day it was clear that North Dakota State’s championship experience won the day.
“It’s hard to put into words,” NDSU’s Ryab Drevlow said. “It’s a special group of guys. We love each other and would do anything for each other. We’ve looked each other the last couple of years and said, ‘I’m going to compete for you and leave it all out there. It’s been remarkable.’”