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Smash-mouth football: NDSU, Towson share similar traits with running game

FNS Photo by Carrie Snyder North Dakota State running back John Crockett, middle, runs the ball through New Hamshire’s defense during a FCS semifinals game on Dec. 20 at the Fargodome.1 / 2
FNS Photo by Carrie Snyder North Dakota State running back Sam Ojuri flies into the endzone for a touchdown against New Hampshire during a FCS semifinals game on Dec. 20 at the Fargodome.2 / 2

FARGO — In an age when college football has morphed to wide-open spread offenses with a new generation of multi-colored uniforms and metallic-color helmets, North Dakota State and Towson University (Md.) have taken a different approach in reaching the Division I FCS national title game.

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They’ve gone old school.

Both will bring their teams rooted in physical football to Frisco, Texas, for the Jan. 4 matchup at Toyota Stadium. Both feature offenses that are based on running the ball with running backs that are not afraid of contact between the tackles. The offensive lines of each school are considered a strength.

“We appreciate how they play and how they operate,” said NDSU head coach Craig Bohl. “With all the different dynamics of football, what you’re seeing is two football teams that believe in playing hard-nosed, physical football. Much of college football has not gone that way.”

NDSU has taken that way of life to a 14-0 record and two straight FCS titles. The Bison offense has rarely altered from its base that has seen Sam Ojuri and John Crockett go over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. What the Bison added this year is a better passing attack, and hence a more balanced offense.

“They’re one of the more physical football teams I’ve seen on film at any level for a long time,” said Towson head coach Rob Ambrose. “There are two ways to go about building this thing. One is to build so you can win a couple ballgames and one is to build it so you can win a national championship. If you look at the team that has been so consistent and been right in there all the time is the team that can run the football and defend the run. That’s a good blueprint to start to build a program.”

That blueprint pays dividends this time of the year when the weather can be poor for an outdoor game. It’s perhaps not an accident, then, that the last two teams left standing in the FCS are two molded in a similar fashion.

Towson defeated two wide-open, high-profile throwing offenses in Eastern Illinois and Eastern Washington to reach Frisco. Both victories came in winter weather.

“If you want a chance to win games in every weather condition, you better be able to run the football the worse conditions get,” Ambrose said. “If you want your teams to be tough, then you’re going to have to run the football, and that attitude purveys in the entire program. While I don’t see us in the same vain as (NDSU) as powerful as they are, the run game and the physicality has certainly helped us.”

These teams are also similar in another respect: Both have rescued poor seasons in which their respective head coaches were on the hot seat. NDSU was 3-8 in 2009, but quickly turned that around to a quarterfinal playoff appearance in 2010.

Towson went 1-10 in 2010 with its only victory a five-overtime marathon over Coastal Carolina and questions with Ambrose were prevalent. But like the Bison did following their losing season, the Tigers quickly rebounded going 9-3 the following year and reaching the FCS playoffs. Towson got a first round bye, but had its season end in the second round 40-38 by Lehigh University (Pa.).

Towson went 7-4 and missed the playoffs last season before putting it together this year.

“It’s a whole lot of hard work by a ton of people both inside and outside the program,” Ambrose said. “People that were relentless and believed. Even in the dark and hard days when you couldn’t really see any of the growth, everybody kept working.”

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.