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Underdog Towson says it feels no pressure heading into FCS title game against North Dakota State

Tigers need to beat back-to-back champs to complete their improbable run

By Edward Lee

The Baltimore Sun

7:40 PM EST, January 3, 2014

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FRISCO, Texas -- Towson is fully aware that North Dakota State is the prohibitive favorite in Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision title game.

The Bison are the back-to-back reigning national champions. They went 14-0 this season en route to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA playoffs. And they have won their past 23 games heading into the 2 p.m. final at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

Those accolades have led to North Dakota State being named a 13½-point favorite by Vegas oddsmakers. But to Tigers senior defensive tackle Arnold Farmer, that resume just means the pressure is on the Bison — not Towson — to come away with the victory.

"It's definitely on them," said Farmer, a Baltimore native and Poly graduate. "We just have to play our brand of ball. They have all the expectations on them to win a third one, and we're just out here trying to be the best Towson team we can be."

It may sound like an unusual stance for a member of a team that is 13-2, scored its first FCS postseason win, and is on the cusp of capturing the university's first Division I title in any sport. But Farmer's comments are backed by his quarterback and his coach.

"I can see where he's coming from with that statement," fifth-year senior Peter Athens said. "Winning it three times [in a row] is definitely a tough thing to do. They're undefeated and they have that pressure to have that undefeated season, and we're the underdog. I know that we love being the underdog. So I can see that, and I do definitely agree with that to an extent."

Said coach Rob Ambrose: "Let's face it: in the history of I-AA football, Towson University is nobody from nowhere. There's a whole lot of, 'Who are these guys?' … So yeah, they're the undefeated team. They haven't lost a game in nobody remembers how long. I suppose the pressure's on them. That's a perspective you might have to ask them. We're just going to go play our game as well as we can play it, as hard as we can play it, and keep playing until us we can't play anymore."

For more evidence that Towson is staying loose, look no further than Ambrose, who planned to spend part of Friday shopping for an earring.

In an effort to spur his players in the preseason, Ambrose agreed to get an ear pierced if the team reached the FCS title game. Reminded of that deal, the 43-year-old coach said he was going jewelry shopping with his wife Friday evening.

"I'm not having a midlife crisis," Ambrose said. "But this afternoon, I'm going to get my ear pierced because I promised my kids that I would do that."

Acknowledging the challenge of trying to join Appalachian State as the only programs to win three consecutive FCS championships, North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said his team has grown accustomed used to dealing with pressure.

"The thing we can do is go out and play the very best we can and prepare the very best we can," he said. "Our guys have been in pressurized situations for several years and particularly this year. We have a hungry, confident football team. They're playing well. I have not ever sensed them being up tight or worried about making mistakes. They recognize they're not going to play perfect, but they're going to strive for perfection."

The underdog role is nothing new for the Tigers. As the No. 7 seed, they were thought to be at a disadvantage against No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois in the quarterfinals and then again against No. 3 seed Eastern Washington in the semifinals.

But Towson utilized a battering ram in junior running back Terrance West —who rushed for a FCS playoff-record 354 yards and five touchdowns — to defeat the Panthers, 49-39, in Charleston, Ill., on Dec. 13. Then sophomore quarterback Connor Frazier replaced an injured Athens to direct a pair of touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to edge the Eagles, 35-31, on Dec. 21.

Athens is expected to start Saturday after suffering what he called a sprained right (throwing) shoulder. His absence would have further crippled a passing attack that has been playing without starting wide receivers Leon Kinnard (foot) and Spencer Wilkins (broken ankle).

The Tigers know they face an uphill battle against the Bison. But as they have done throughout the tournament, the players and coaches are hoping to produce one more surprise.

"The underdog [label] is something we've been playing with for years," senior left tackle Eric Pike said. "I guess it just goes right along with us. So we just look to go out and earn respect. Respect isn't something that you're just going to be given. You have to go out and earn it through your physicality and the work you put in, and that's something that we're definitely looking forward to doing."

NOTE: West expressed frustration Friday about a report stating he intends skip his senior year and declare for the NFL draft.

West disputed the report, which originated from a website called Campus SportsNet.

"I didn't say it," West said after the team had finished a news conference at the stadium. "I hate words being put in my mouth. I hate that. It's wrong. No one should do that to anyone. So yes, I'm angry."

West, who has already set FCS records for rushing yards in a single season (2,410) and total touchdowns (41), has drawn attention from NFL analysts for his speed, power and vision. West repeated his previous stance that he will make a decision on his future after the season, when he can consult with his family and Ambrose.

edward.lee@baltsun.com


Towson (13-2) vs. North Dakota State (14-0)

When: Saturday, 2 p.m.

Site: Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas

TV: ESPN2

Radio: TowsonTigers.com

Series: North Dakota State leads, 1-0

What's at stake: Towson began the postseason in search of its first victory in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision tournament. Now the No. 7 seed Tigers are poised to capture the school's first Division I national championship in any sport. The only obstacle standing in their way is North Dakota State, which has captured the last two NCAA crowns. The Bison have won their past 23 games and are an astounding 42-2 in the past three seasons. They have outscored opponents, 138-35, in the tournament, including a 52-14 dismantling of New Hampshire. The Wildcats are the only common opponent for Towson and North Dakota State. The Tigers disposed of New Hampshire, 44-28, on Oct. 5.

Key matchup: Towson junior running back Terrance West continues to polish his resume as the FCS record holder for yards in a single season (2,410 yards) and touchdowns (41). West, who set a single-game playoff record with 354 yards and five scores in a 49-39 win against No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois in the quarterfinals, will tangle with a North Dakota State defense that is the stingiest in the nation against opposing running backs. The Bison are surrendering just 90.2 rushing yards this season.

Player to watch: Sophomore quarterback Connor Frazier proved he could propel the Tigers to victory when he scored the game-winning touchdown in a 35-31 victory over No. 3 seed Eastern Washington in the semifinals. But fifth-year senior Peter Athens is expected start despite a sprained right shoulder, and his accuracy (64.5 completion percentage for 3,198 yards and 19 touchdowns) and leadership could be key for Towson.