Bowling Green stands between Notre Dame College, return to D1AA Nat'l Championship

The two D1AA Fall finalists have taken similar paths to reach this semester’s title game, but have a very unique history from one another.

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Notre Dame College is one win away from getting back to the D1AA National Championship, but it won't come easy. The Falcons are set to meet another group of Falcons, Bowling Green State University, in the Sunday, Dec. 4 D1AA Fall Championship Final at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. as part of the 2016 USA Rugby Fall College Championships.

The two D1AA Fall finalists have taken similar paths to reach this semester's title game, but have a very unique history from one another. Notre Dame College rugby was established just four years ago and the team has used its varsity status to recruit impressive student-athletes that have helped navigate the program from Division III to DII and now, to its current place, as a D1AA Independent.

Bowling Green, on the other hand, is steeped in decades of tradition and just captured its 36th consecutive Mid-American Conference Championship. So, while their histories couldn't be more distinct, their journeys to Greenville still share many similarities.

Being independent from a conference, Notre Dame College built a diverse slate of matches in hopes of qualifying for the fall D1AA Playoffs. The fixtures included bouts with D1AA sides, senior club teams, as well as squads from D1A Rugby. Early season victories against D1A's Wheeling Jesuit and St. Bonaventure were terrific starts to the campaign, but it was wins over Canterbury's fifth-ranked Indiana and ninth-ranked Davenport that have brought the team for the forefront of the fall D1AA season.

"I think anytime you can play a quality opponent to show your weaknesses it gives you a chance to work on those things that need to be addressed," said Notre Dame College Head Coach Jason Fox. "We were very fortunate to have the victories, however, those teams were able to expose some areas of weakness, especially defensively where we try to pride ourselves."

Bowling Green receives quality opposition from conference rivals like Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but when you've won 36-straight conference championships you make sure to challenge yourself outside of conference play, as well. Like Notre Dame College, Bowling Green recorded wins over D1A Rugby teams, picking off victories against West Virginia and Ohio State by Sept. 10. In October, the Falcons welcomed perennial D1A contenders Davenport to Bowling Green and battled the Panthers to a narrow, 29-20, defeat.

When commonly besting conference foes by 60-plus points, tests like the one against Davenport are important to show that improvements need to be made despite how comfy Mid-American Conference wins come by.

"Sometimes as a coach you can see certain weaknesses, but it's really tough to relate to a player because they see the result and go by that," said Bowling Green Head Coach Tony Mazzarella. "They don't understand that better teams will make you pay for mistakes. This group, however, understands that a big scoreline is not the whole story."

Both Falcon teams faced much stiffer competition during fall's D1AA Playoffs. After blowing out Syracuse in Nov. 19's Quarterfinals, Notre Dame College battled a tough Cincinnati squad, as well as a snow covered pitch, to sludge past the Bearcats by just five points.

"We played great defense against Cincinnati," Fox recalled. "I thought we could have score a couple more times in the second half because they played with the wind in the first half and controlled procession.

"Even though we played in adverse conditions to our style of play, I am proud of how we battled through the situation and kept our heads. That is a good lesson to learn."

Like Notre Dame College, Bowling Green barely broke a sweat in its 78-20 Quarterfinal win against Mount St. Mary's. In the Semifinal, though, the Falcons found themselves down 12-0 versus Lindenwood-Belleville before scoring 22 unanswered points to advance to the Fall Championship.

Considering Notre Dame College doubled-up Lindenwood-Belleville, 34-17, a month ago, Bowling Green won't be able to afford a slow start this weekend as opposed to two weeks ago when its players "did a lot of looking around in the first half instead of reading and reacting," according to Mazarella.

Of course, Bowling Green is not only concerned with avoiding a sluggish start Sunday. The team has taken note of Notre Dame College's undefeated record and what it does so well to have remained unbeaten this fall.

"They maintain a lot of discipline on defense, I would say their biggest asset is their recovery defense," complimented Mazarella. "They've also got some really good playmakers in the backfield. They've got guys who can make you miss, they've got guys that power through tackles and give good offloads. Their forwards can't be ignored either, but when you look at their highlight tapes you're going to see a lot of good stuff from their full back, center and fly half. All three of those guys stick out."

From the other sideline, Notre Dame College sees a very balanced team in Bowling Green.

"I know they have a very strong pack, as well as dynamic players 10 through 15," acknowledged Fox. "We hope to just keep our defensive structure and not let them get to space. We have to play a possession game and keep them off balanced on offense. It should be a great game."

Sunday, Dec. 4's D1AA Fall Championship game will determine who plays the Spring Champion for the 2017 D1AA National Championship, and is one of four Championship fixtures being contested on the day. Following Bowling Green and Notre Dame College's D1AA Final - scheduled to kickoff at 9 a.m. ET - the Men's Division II National Champion will be crowned, as well as the Fall Champions for Women's DI and DII. All four Championship matches will air live on The Rugby Channel free of charge.

For a complete schedule of the 2016 USA Rugby Fall Championships, visit USA Rugby's College Championships page.