FRISCO, Texas (AP) — The FCS championship rematch between North Dakota State and Sam Houston State is something of a do-over for several key returning offensive players.
They didn’t have much of a say a year ago when a fake punt was the most important play in a 17-6 North Dakota State win dominated by defense.
The Bison controlled prolific Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders to become the fourth straight first-time FCS champion, and Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell couldn’t answer, completing just 12 of 32 passes with two interceptions.
“They looked at their football team and said, ‘We’ve got to throw the ball better,'” said North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl, who is 9-1 in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and has agreed to an eight-year contract extension through 2021. “Last year we did a good job defending them because they were fairly one-dimensional.”
The second dimension won’t guarantee anything for Sam Houston (11-3) on Saturday because the Bison lead the FCS in passing defense, along with scoring defense and total defense. North Dakota State has held 11 of its past 15 opponents under 250 yards, and that includes last year’s title game when Sam Houston had just 210.
The Bison (13-1) weren’t much better on offense a year ago, finishing with 235 yards and just nine first downs. They won because punter Matt Voigtlander ran 27 yards on a fake punt, and Brock Jensen threw a 39-yard touchdown on a screen pass on the next play to give North Dakota State a 10-6 lead early in the third quarter.
That one carry made Voigtlander the second-leading rusher with returning running back Sam Ojuri, and the Bison averaged just 3.4 yards per rush.
“Our first thing is going to be running the football,” said Jensen, who had North Dakota State’s other touchdown last year on a 1-yard run. “That’s the kind of team we are.”
Ultimately, the Bison are defense first, and that’s where their biggest star plays. Cornerback Marcus Williams has 16 career interceptions, including five this year. He has seven career touchdowns — four interception returns, two kickoffs and a lateral. Linebacker Grant Olson, who set a school record with 29 tackles in the quarterfinals against Wofford, will play after being hospitalized earlier in the week with a swollen appendix.
Williams sees a difference in Bell, who has more yards and touchdowns and a better completion percentage this year.
“Biggest improvement for him over last year is just making more plays,” Williams said. “He’s staying in the pocket and hitting the right guys in the passing game.”
Sam Houston’s offense starts with the running game, though. Flanders, a junior who started his career at Kansas State, is already the school’s runaway career rushing leader at 4,181 and could easily double the previous record assuming he returns for his senior season. A year ago, the Bison held him to 84 yards, and the Bearkats averaged just 2.3 per carry as a team.
“I have to remember that every time I have the ball in my hands won’t result in a big play,” said Flanders, who had a season-high 231 yards in a 45-42 win over Eastern Washington the semifinals. “I have to be able to be OK with 3-yard gains or 4-yard gains. We have to stay ahead of the chains and we’ll be fine.”
As usual, North Dakota State relies on a pair of running backs. Ojuri’s partner this year is John Crockett, the leading rusher by 1 yard (956 to 955). Ojuri has 10 rushing touchdowns, while Crockett and Jensen have nine apiece. Jensen has 17 touchdown passes.
“It helps us a little bit that we struggled last year because it lets us know what we can and cannot get away with against Sam Houston,” Jensen said.
Sam Houston is trying to win the school’s first title and become the fifth straight first-time FCS champion after a strange season that included a 1-2 start, just four home games and two road wins in three playoff games following a rare late-season BCS conference opponent in Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
“We started off in tough fashion, and basically we were in playoff mode from that point on,” Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. “We’ve really earned the right to be back here.”