FRISCO, Texas -- For North Dakota State to take down the No. 1 FCS team in the nation, it needed game-changing plays came from unexpected places.
It was a first-year punter and a freshman linebacker who made the difference in the Bison’s 17-6 FCS championship win over Sam Houston State on Saturday at Pizza Hut Park.
On a fourth-and-4, Matt Voigtlander executed a fake punt by carrying the ball 27-yards from the Bison 39. He picked up the first down and set up the Bison’s first touchdown of the game, a 39-yard screen pas catch-and-run by Texas native D.J. McNorton.
Voigtlander, a senior, was initially recruited as a running back but made the conversion to punting in the spring. The trick play that relied on Voigtlander’s rushing abilities remained unused in the Bison arsenal the entire season, waiting for the right moment, North Dakota coach Craig Bohl said.
“As open as it was, just about anyone could have done what I did with the wide‑open field.,” Voigtlander said.
North Dakota State took the third frame 7-0, marking the first time this season Sam Houston State had been held scoreless in the quarter.
Voigtlander’s new-found punting abilities came into the spotlight Saturday against the top scoring offense in the nation. He pinned Sam Houston State inside the 20 four times. His kicks totaled 442 yards on 10 tries, with a long of 66-yards booted on the first Bison drive of the game.
McNorton’s touchdown gave North Dakota a 10-6 lead, which it would hold until the fourth quarter when a freshman would help put the game away and claim the Most Outstanding Player honors.
Linebacker Travis Beck dropped back into coverage on third-and-13, which put him into position to get pegged in the chest by Sam Houston State quarterback Brian Bell. Beck secured the pick and returned it 63 yards to the Sam Houston 1, setting up a 1-yard keeper by quarterback Brock Jensen.
“I decided I better catch this one or else I'll never hear the end of that,” Beck said. “I did what I could. Couldn't get it in, but the offense finished it off.”
The return was sprung by a huge block from cornerback Christian Dudzik, which Beck said he was unable to see but most definitely heard.
Beck did, however, take a moment to apologize to the person who was counting on him to get that one extra yard off his first career interception the most.
“Grandpa, if you're watching, I'm sorry I didn't get that touchdown like you said,” Beck said. “But maybe next year.”
Beck was a key part to the defensive struggle that began the moment the first kickoff left the tee, until the final whistle.
It took the Bison 10 minutes to find the scoreboard first on a 19-yard field goal by Ryan Jastram. Sam Houston State managed just 52 yards of total offense in the first quarter.
The Bearkats entered halftime with the lead after Craig Alaniz hit field goals from 24 and 31 yards in the second quarter. However, the six-point first half was the lowest-scoring effort Sam Houston State had put up the entire season.
Offense didn’t come easy for North Dakota State either.
Both teams were held to a combined 5-of-31 on third-down conversions, with North Dakota State going just 1-for 13. Bohl admitted if he would have known his team would convert just one third down, he wouldn’t bet on his team to have won.
The Bison defense held Sam Houston State three out of four times on fourth down tries.
“We didn't have a lot of success on third and short and fourth and short,” Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said. “But they did a good job of playing the situation better than we did.”
Sam Houston claimed two takeaways in the game on an interception and a fumble recovery but failed to convert either into points.
Saturday’s win marks North Dakota State’s ninth national championship, with the previous eight coming in Division II or the Small College Division.
The championship week became a demonstration of the tradition of tiny Fargo, N.D., from the play on the field to the enormous wave of green and gold that filled the stands, cheering with every snap.
“We have a great, rich tradition at North Dakota State,” Bohl said. “The school has won eight national championships in football. And so we've got a lot of pride, not only with these guys ‑‑ and D.J. alluded to it ‑‑ Bison pride. That goes all the way back to the '60s, I believe 1965.”