With both defenses keeping offense to a minimum, North Dakota State made more plays down the stretch and that was the difference Saturday in Frisco, Texas.
In their first NCAA Division I national championship football game appearance, the top-ranked Bearkats came up short 17-6, which ended their perfect season and their quest for a national title at Pizza Hut Park.
“Obviously, we would’ve liked a better outcome. Both teams did a heck of a job,” a dejected Sam Houston senior center Travis Watson said.
“Their defense really came out and played us well. To come this far and do what we’ve done in this program and turn it around so fast, it’s been great to be a part of. This has been the best year I’ve ever had. I’m blessed to be a part of this team.”
Trailing 10-6 midway through the fourth, the Bearkats, who had not been able to generate much offense in the second half thanks to a menacing Bison defense, finally started to get some momentum. SHSU drove into North Dakota State territory looking for a go-ahead score.
Settling for just 22 yards in its previous two possessions, Sam Houston quarterback Brian Bell hit explosive sophomore receiver Torrance Williams on a catch-and-run that went 25 yards and into Bison territory.
After a pair of runs by tailback Tim Flanders and utility man Richard Sincere that netted negative-3 yards, the Kats faced third-and-19 from the North Dakota State 48.
Bell attempted to find Williams in the middle of the field but Bison linebacker Travis Beck was in the right position to make a play and snared the pass. Beck shed a block, then took it all the way to the Bearkats’ 1-yard line.
One play later, Bison quarterback Brock Jensen pushed the ball across the goal line to stretch North Dakota State’s lead to 11 points with a little less than nine minutes to go.
“I saw a receiver coming behind me. I thought that it was going to be a high pass that I would have to jump for it,” Beck said. “I didn’t know if it hit me right in the chest and I decided I better catch this one or I’ll never hear the end of that.
“I did what I could. Couldn’t get it in, but (our) offense finished it off.”
Sam Houston found its way back into Bison territory on the next drive, thanks to a 5-yard scamper by Bell for a first down. But the Bearkats missed on the next four passes.
Beck’s interception and ensuing return proved to be the dagger that Sam Houston just could not overcome.
Coming out of halftime, the Bearkats held a slim 6-3 lead and knew they had a dogfight on their hands.
On the first possession of the third quarter, the Bearkat defense held North Dakota State to just 6 yards and seemingly forced the Bison to punt.
After being held to three-and-outs in their final three possessions of the first half, the Bison didn’t want to risk letting the Sam Houston defense get into a rhythm. North Dakota State’s line blocked to perfection and Bison punter Matt Voigtlander scooted 27 yards on a successful fake kick to prolong the drive.
“I looked to the outside. We got out of the box, came down, blocking down like we were expecting, hoping, and good – just good blocking there,” Voigtlander said, “and it was wide open, so my eyes were wide open seeing the open field and I did what I could.”
Jensen then hit running back D.J. McNorton on a screen and the senior tailback sprinted between blockers for a 39-yard score to put the Bison ahead 10-6.
“We work all the time on sudden change. It was a good play call,” Sam Houston head coach Willie Fritz said of the touchdown play after the fake punt. “They ran a little screen to the back and caught us in the zone, and linemen came up and blocked the linebacker and ran off the secondary.
“So it was the right call at the right time and many times people take a shot in sudden change situations. They were patient, ran a nice screen play, so it was a good play call.”
Besides mistakes made in the third and fourth quarters, the Bearkats could easily look to the first half when they had opportunities, but couldn’t take command.
There, they forced two turnovers – a fumble recovery and an interception – but only wound up with three points.
Midway through the second quarter, Sam Houston, which had only accumulated three first downs up to that point, started to hit its stride offensively.
Flanders had three rushes for more than 10 yards apiece on a drive that set up the Bearkats inside the 10-yard line.
The Kats couldn’t break through, and after running back Ryan Wilson dropped a would-be touchdown pass,
Sam Houston had to settle for a field goal that tied the game at 3.
Just before halftime, the Bearkats were knocking on the door again, but managed just a field goal.
“We have a saying: bend but don’t break. We showed great resilience. We just tried to get off the field and let our offense do their thing,” Beck said.
Holding a 6-3 lead and with the way they were running the ball toward the end of the first half, the Kats felt like momentum was on their side.
“We were moving the ball down the field,” Flanders said. “It all started with our defense. They gave them a stop. We just had a couple of big plays, defense out of position, offensive line did a very good job, and that’s how we make our way down the field.”
All game long, the defenses stole the show and were as good as advertised.
Sam Houston held the Bison to 235 yards and came up with two turnovers.
North Dakota State limited the Bearkats to 210 yards, and also had a pair of turnovers (two interceptions).
The Bison were the first team this season to keep Sam Houston from finding the end zone.
“A couple of great defenses out there playing today, without question,” Fritz said.
“I’m really proud of the effort that we played with. I don’t think we played great, but probably a lot of that has to do with North Dakota State. I think those were the top two defenses in the country without question and the top two teams.”
The Bison’s defensive front also kept the Bearkats from developing any kind of running attack. North Dakota State held Sam Houston to its lowest rushing output (115 yards) of the season, and for the first time since late October, neither Flanders nor Sincere rushed for more than 100 yards.
“They had a good defensive scheme coming into the game, something we didn’t see much,” 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 out of our rhythm, and it was tough to come back from.”
With such an abundance of youth, the Bearkats, who lose 14 seniors but only five starters, believe they can come back and play for another championship next year.
“We’re going to be back,” junior safety Robert Shaw said. “Coach Fritz is a good coach and we have a good coaching staff and I have confidence we’ll be back.”