Bison mess with Texas to win title
North Dakota St. puts on defensive show in front of packed house
FRISCO, Texas – The people of North Dakota seem to be a friendly bunch. Down to earth, hard-working and about as loyal as it gets.
And one other thing: they’re not afraid of a fight.
Just ask the college-aged guy on the 35-yard line behind the North Dakota State bench before the start of Saturday’s FCS championship game. His sign said it all: “We came to mess with Texas.”
His Bison did just that, grinding out a 17-6 victory against Sam Houston State in a defensive hodgepodge of a game that made both sides rely more on special teams than anyone could have guessed. The win gave the second-seeded Bison their first FCS title and eighth championship at any level, while the top-seeded Bearkats missed out on history. SHSU was aiming to become the fourth undefeated and untied FCS champion and first since 1996, but instead fell to 14-1 on the year and earned a runner-up trophy.
It didn’t seem like that would be the case coming in.
After mediocre seasons by the state’s usual college gridiron gurus – Texas finished 8-5, Texas A&M was 7-6 – there was hushed talk around the media area this week at FC Dallas Stadium whether Sam Houston State might be the best team in the state. Maybe even able to give Baylor – which lost three games despite having a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback – a run for its money in a head-to-head matchup.
The Bearkats might be able to because there is no way Baylor could play defense like North Dakota State.
The Bison effectively shut down the highest-scoring FCS offense in the country, limiting a team averaging 39.1 points per game to just two field goals. It cut out the knees of the Bearkats, who were also No. 1 in rushing offense but managed only 95 yards on the ground Saturday.
“They are very assignment sound,” Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders said. “Their defensive coordinator did a very good job of taking away one of our option games. Big ups to them because they’re a good defense, but we knew that coming into the game.”
No one could know just how good they’d be.
The Bison held Flanders, an All-American who already owns the school single-season and career rushing records as a sophomore, to just 84 yards on the ground. He had only 19 yards in the second half when SHSU has been typically dominant because of halftime adjustments. Instead of making all the right calls, it was NDSU pitching a shut out the last 30 minutes.
Arguably the biggest play of the day came at the end of the first drive of the second half. The previous three drives to end the first half finished with the same results as NDSU went three-and-out each time before heading to the locker room trailing 6-3. The Bison sputtered out of the break, gaining 6 and 0 yards on runs before an incompletion set up fourth down. It looked as if nothing had changed.
That’s where it all came together and the Bison really started messing with the Bearkats.
Punter Matt Voigtlander, who began his career as a running back and has more than 600 yards to his credit the past three years, changed the dynamic of the game with one sprint across a wide-open left side. Instead of kicking it away, he raced 27 yards and energized the team and stadium, which was nearly half full of green-and-gold clad fans.
Amazingly, he said he made it look harder than it was.
“Actually, I got a hard time from the guys saying that shouldn't have went down and that I lost some [yardage at the end of the run],” Voightlander said. “But as open as it was, just about anyone could have done what I did with the wide open field.”
Adding insult to injury, senior D.J. McNorton – one of three native Texans on the Bison roster – took a bubble screen and galloped 39 yards to the end zone on the next play to put the Bison ahead for good at 10-6.
And McNorton wasn’t willing to give an inch on how well Voigtlander’s run was.
“I might be the toughest critic on that,” McNorton said. “We came in together as running backs. … I've been waiting for him to run. We finally called [the fake punt]. I've been waiting for him to do it. And we originally planned on him running for about 60 and the touchdown. But he kind of let us down on that.”
Even without those extra yards, the Bison still had enough because of their defense.
Linebacker Travis Beck, named the game’s most outstanding player, sealed the victory when he picked off a pass in the fourth quarter. Following bone-crushing block from teammate Christian Dudzik – “I didn't see it. But as soon as I caught it – I heard it was Dudzik, I believe, but he knows how to hit. And then anybody could have made that play,” Beck said – he returned it all the way to the 1-yard line, setting up the final score.
Still, it was the fourth-lowest championship game in FCS history as the teams combined to go just 5 of 31 on third downs. NDSU converted only once on 13 third-down attempts.
“I know it was a great defensive battle,” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said. “And it felt like we had pretty good tempo, though. … [The players] embraced that game plan. And our coaches. Very rarely was there a play that occurred that was uncontested. Usually we had some guy there in good position. So with the tempo and how we were playing, it felt really good about our opportunity to win.”
It was just the right kind of tempo to mess with a team. And a state.
In the final championship week press conference Friday, Bohl made a pair of statements that rang true Saturday. First, he said that the first drive of the second half would be huge in setting the tone as Sam Houston State had dominated the third period all year, outscoring foes 180-31. And secondly, he noted that because of the depth and physicalness of both teams, field position would play a larger factor than many of their contests.
He couldn’t have been more right.
Voigtlander’s fake punt to extend the first series after the intermission and his ability to flip the field paid huge dividends. On the day, the senior punter had to kick 10 times, averaging 44.2 yards per punt. He pinned SHSU inside its 20-yard line four times and had three punts of at least 50 yards, including a career-best 66-yarder in the first period.
“I think field position certainly came into play, particularly in the fourth quarter,” Bohl said. “That wind had a difference there, and so having them pinned deep like that [was big].
“But you know what? I am a little bit surprised we were able to come up with a win. Typically we're way ahead in the turnover margin and the field position has always been more in our favor. We had to battle some things. I thought our defensive guys did a phenomenal job keeping Sam [Houston State] out of the end zone there, because they played on the short field a little bit more than I would have liked.”
They came in droves
The FCS championship attendance was phenomenal this year, easily eclipsing the old mark. With 20,586 on hand Saturday, a total of 209,761 fans came out to see the playoffs, including a rather well-traveled championship game crowd.
Many thought that FC Dallas Stadium might become Bowers Stadium North, with Sam Houston State less than 200 miles from the Frisco complex. But the Bison – with their RVs and pickup trucks all painted and flags a waving – made the 16-hour trek from Fargo, a trip made worth-while with the win. So much so, many of the estimated 9,000 Bison fans – the school only had a ticket allotment of 4,000 but quickly sold out and said it could have easily sold another 6,000 – stormed the field after the clock ticked all the way down and joined in the celebration.
“I joked that the last person in the state of North Dakota needs to turn out the lights because I don't know if there's anybody left,” Bohl said. “What a great showing of support. I want to say thanks to all our fans. Not only fans that were from our region, but they flew in from all across the country. This is a great game-day venue and Sam Houston State had a great following, too. I think it just sets a tone that this championship can really be special.”
That’s a good look for you
North Dakota State came into the contest as the No. 1 scoring defense in the country and Sam Houston State was No. 2. But that doesn’t mean they get the job done the same just because they’re both at the top.
Actually, NDSU had a bit of a different look, throwing a curve at the Bearkats that put them on their heels. It showed in the form of only 210 total offense yards, more than half the Bearkats’ season average of 421.
“They had a good defensive scheme coming into the game, something we didn't see much,” SHSU center Travis Watson said. “The defensive linemen, they weren't coming off the ball like we were used to. They were kind of playing back and reading, they were able to get us out of position with their slants and twists from their linebackers. So they were really they really played us well and got us kind of our rhythm, and it was tough to come back from.”
And we’ll call it a wrap
North Dakota State is the 21st different FCS champion since the trophy was first given out, and the fourth different champion in four years … Since moving up from Division II, the Bison are now 5-1 all-time in FCS playoff action … D.J. McNorton finished the season with 1,020 yards, becoming the second 1,000-yard rusher on the squad behind Sam Ojuri (1,105) and were the 28th duo to reach the mark for one team in the same season … Sam Houston State RB Tim Flanders established a Southland Conference record, breaking Claude Mathis’ previous mark of 1,593 yards at Southwest Texas State. Flanders finished with 1,684 yards rushing this season … Sam Houston State ended the season with its lowest total offensive yardage of the year, posting just 210 yards, well below the previous low of 313 yards against Western Illinois … The win was only the second national title for the Missouri Valley Conference, following Southern Illinois’ championship in 1983 … NDSU was only the second team to win the title after finishing the regular season fourth in the national poll. Georgia Southern in 1986 was the other.