Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders ran free for what looked like the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter of the FCS championship rematch with North Dakota State on Saturday.
A yellow flag resting at the line of scrimmage behind the school's career rushing leader changed everything.
Flanders' 41-yard run was wiped out by a holding penalty, and Brian Bell's interception on the next play led to the Bison taking the lead instead and going on to their second straight FCS title with a 39-13 victory. The Bearkats (11-4) had two other holding calls that scratched long runs deep in Bison territory on drives that ended without points.
"I was more disappointed in some of our penalties that we had that were pre-snap penalties," Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. "I tell the guys all the time once the ball is snapped all the decisions made out there are subjective decisions and there's not a whole lot you can do about it."
North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen ran for three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score on a 1-yard sneak not long after the Flanders TD run that wasn't. Sam Ojuri scored twice for the Bison, whose fans turned the field into a pep rally after the game by joining a trophy presentation on a stage that makes up one end of FC Dallas Stadium.
"Let's go Bison!" coach Craig Bohl shouted while holding up a Bison hand signal that could be mistaken for the Texas Longhorns' "Hook 'Em Horns" sign in the Lone Star State. "Best fans in America!"
The Bison, who won 17-6 a year ago, improved to 10-1 in the FCS playoffs with their eighth straight postseason win.
After Jensen's go-ahead score, Ojuri had a 2-yard TD run on fourth-and-1 after the Bison (14-1) got the ball with a fourth-down stop.
Ojuri had 92 yards rushing, and Jensen added 44 to go with 115 passing yards. The Bison rushed for 300 yards.
John Crockett had 80 yards rushing, 24 receiving and a 26-yard pass to set up a score on a trick play after taking a straight-ahead handoff.
Bell threw for 255 yards against the nation's best pass defense, but had three of Sam Houston's four interceptions. Flanders, who had 231 yards rushing in the semifinals and more than 4,100 for his three-year career, was held to 53 yards on 19 carries, a 2.8 average.
After the holding call on Flanders' run, Carlton Littlejohn intercepted Bell's pass while falling to his knees, and the turnover was upheld on review. Ojuri had 25 yards rushing on a drive that ended with Jensen's score for a 17-10 lead.
"That's a big turning point," said North Dakota State cornerback Marcus Williams, who had two interceptions to set the school career record with 18. "Whenever a team scores a TD and it gets taken off the board, it gives you momentum. In this game, you needed as much momentum as we could get."
The Bearkats were driving again when Bell had to throw the ball away before getting slammed to the turf on fourth-and-1. He stayed flat on his back and sat out parts of the fourth quarter.
"There were some opportunities there that could have gotten us back in the game, an answer or two to a score they had," Fritz said. "But it didn't bounce that way."
Jensen's 31-yard pass to Zach Vraa set up Ojuri's fourth-down run, and the Bison further deflated the Bearkats when they turned a botched snap on the extra point into a 2-point conversion and a 25-10 lead on a desperation pass from kicker Adam Keller to Mike Hardie.
"Sometimes there's plays that happen in the game when you think, 'You know what, this is probably going to be our day,'" Bohl said. "A play that we had never planned or designed turned out to work extremely well."
North Dakota State scored the first touchdown in the second quarter by covering 65 yards on three running plays. Jensen ran 21 yards on third down after the field opened when Sam Houston State's leading tackler, Darnell Taylor, crumpled to the ground in front of him with an apparently leg injury. Ryan Smith ran 24 yards, and Jensen, who accounted for both touchdowns in last year's game, scored from the 20.
Sam Houston ended a championship game touchdown drought just before it reached six quarters and tied the score at 10 when Bell threw a 1-yard pass to K.J. Williams with 33 seconds left in the first half. A 30-yard toss to Richard Sincere put the ball on the 1 three plays after an interception by Andre Martin Jr. was wiped out when he was called for defensive holding.
Crockett's career-long 57-yard run set up a 32-yard field goal by Keller to give North Dakota State a first-quarter lead. Miguel Antonio kicked a tying 38-yarder in the second quarter after missing from 32 yards in the first.