TOWSON, Md. — A Baltimore Sun writer, prepping to write a preview of this Saturday's football game between Towson and North Dakota State, asked Tigers head coach Rob Ambrose this week his recollections of the last time the teams played — the Football Championship Subdivision title game following the 2013 season.
Ambrose, a talkative fellow, chuckled and answered.
Not surprisingly, his response was one that would probably mirror the top memory of the Bison and their fans from that January 2014 day at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
"Pregame with their head coach and watching the field be the most disgusting championship field I've ever seen anybody play a sport on in the history of the NCAA and thinking how embarrassing that was," Ambrose said.
If someone was to ask Craig Bohl, the Bison coach that day and currently at Wyoming, what his top memory of that day was it would probably be the same.
The turf. Or, perhaps, the lack of turf.
NDSU won that game 35-7 to win its third straight national championship and usher out a special era of Bison football. A group of seniors led by quarterback Brock Jensen, cornerback Marcus Williams, left tackle Billy Turner and a large collection of other playmakers played their last game. Bohl and key assistants went directly from that game to begin new jobs in Laramie.
But the story then, and the story eight years later, was the playing surface. Even for Ambrose, whose team overcame odds and more highly favored teams to reach their one and only FCS title game.
Toyota Stadium, the home field for the Major League Soccer team FC Dallas, laid new sod the previous fall. In November 2013 an ice storm blanketed north Texas and the ground remained coated for weeks. So the grass never took hold, with zero root growth leading up to the championship game the first week in January 2014.
So when the Bison and Tigers took the field the morning of the game, it was clear there was going to be problems.
Once the contest kicked off, those problems became obvious for the world to see.
Large clumps of sod tore away from the ground during every play. Bison defensive end Kyle Emanuel, on a podcast with me, said the grass felt like a piece of carpet sliding along a hard floor every time he'd plant and push. It was ugly.
"I remember the commercial breaks where every administrator, every dude in a suit and tie, was out on the field like a polo match trying to replace the divots so nobody saw how bad it was on TV," Ambrose said.
Towson, facing one of the most powerful FCS teams in the subdivision's history, played tough for a quarter and a half. After NDSU scored on its second drive for a 7-0 lead, Towson marched down the field and scored on a Terrance West touchdown run to tie it 7-7.
That sequence was good enough for the Tigers that it triggered an Ambrose memory.
"They went down the field and scored, we went down the field and scored. They weren't really used to that," Ambrose said. "They had tons and tons and tons of awesome, amazing fans that were really quiet for about five minutes and that was fun to be a part of."
But a big play midway through the second quarter flipped the game in favor of the Bison. Safety Colten Heagle blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt by Towson and the ball was scooped up by Emanuel, who rambled to the Tigers 5-yard line. One play later, slot receiver Ryan Smith ran into the end zone on a jet sweep and the Bison led 14-7 with 4:43 left before halftime.
"I remember a blocked field goal that was a real momentum changer," Ambrose said.
NDSU wasn't finished. On the next possession, cornerback C.J. Smith intercepted Towson quarterback Peter Athens and returned it to the Tigers 43. The Bison drove five plays, capped by a 12-yard pass from Jensen to Zach Vraa with 1:05 left before halftime to give NDSU a 21-7 lead.
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The second half was mostly academic after NDSU scored on its first possession of the third quarter for a 28-7 advantage.
Ambrose made clear to say the field conditions didn't affect the outcome.
"It didn't matter. They were playing on the same field we were playing on," he said. "Whether it was that game, or every ounce of film I've seen on them before or since, they are extremely well-coached. They hustle. They don't beat themselves. They are one of the smartest, most physical football teams you are ever going to face. That's a testament to who they recruit, who coaches them, and where they go to school.
Bison 93% Tigers 7%
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"They have the best, and I don't have a problem saying this, the best fan base in FCS football and I would say they have one of the top 50 in all of football at any level. All of that is a force, it really is."
There will be no field problems this week when the Bison travel to Towson. Johnny Unitas Stadium, home field for the Tigers, is covered in artificial FieldTurf.