By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Frisco, TX (Sports Network) - The best defense in the Football Championship Subdivision kept getting better in the playoffs.
It turns out North Dakota State not only had the best defense this season, it had the best team.
The Bison caged Sam Houston State's Wild Bearkat and kept the FCS' top-scoring offense out of the end zone Saturday in winning their first NCAA Division I FCS championship, 17-6 before a sold-out crowd of 20,586 at FC Dallas Stadium.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Travis Beck, who had seven tackles and a pivotal interception in the fourth quarter, was named the game's most outstanding player as North Dakota State (14-1) won its ninth national championship, but first in the FCS.
Top-seeded Sam Houston State (14-1), which entered with a 16-game winning streak dating to last season, was denied in its bid to become the first unbeaten FCS national champion since Marshall finished 15-0 in 1996.
The offensive-minded Bearkats, though, had not previously run into a defense like North Dakota State's. The second-seeded Bison allowed only three touchdowns in four postseason wins and an FCS-low 12.7 points per game this season.
Appropriately, a huge defensive play in the fourth quarter stamped North Dakota State's win. Beck stepped in front of a Brian Bell pass at the Bison 36-yard line, was sprung by cornerback Christian Dudzik's key block and returned his first career interception 63 yards to set up quarterback Brock Jensen's 1-yard sneak, which extended their lead to 17-6 with 8:48 left.
Beck didn't see Dudzik's block, but, he said, "I heard it" in a bring-the- house-down line.
John Pike picked off another Bell pass late in the game to wrap up the defensive gem. Sam Houston State, which entered the game leading the FCS with 39.1 points per game, and often leaving opponents grasping at air when Richard Sincere ran their Wild Bearkat formations, was held to 210 yards and two Craig Alaniz field goals late in the first half.
Bearkats All-America running back Timothy Flanders, coming off a 287-yard performance against Montana in the national semifinals, rushed for 54 yards in the second quarter, but wasn't a big factor the rest of the game in finishing with 84 yards on 21 carries, with six receptions for a mere 10 yards. Sincere had only 14 yards on nine carries.
"We played very well as a defense throughout the playoffs, but to come and hold a team like Sam Houston to six points, it's a pretty big deal," Bison senior linebacker Chad Willson said. "I think it probably was the best team defense we've played all year."
North Dakota State's offense relied on a safe game plan - gaining 235 yards on 20 fewer plays than Sam Houston State - but the reason the Bison have climbed to the FCS summit is the defense that features a beefy defensive line, tackle- hungry linebackers and a Marcus Williams-fueled secondary.
The second half belonged to North Dakota State as it erased a 6-3 halftime deficit, starting with an aggressive play on the third quarter's first series.
The Bison faked a punt when senior Matt Voigtlander rushed to his left into open space and gained 27 yards to the Sam Houston State 39.
On the next play, Jensen drew defenders toward him when he rolled right in the backfield, but threw back with a screen pass to D.J. McNorton, who seemed as surprised as anybody about all the running room in the middle of the field while he finished off the 39-yard touchdown reception and a 10-7 Bison lead with 12:47 remaining.
"It was the right call at the right time. A lot of times teams take a shot in sudden change situations and they ran a nice play," Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said.
Sam Houston State held a 6-3 lead into halftime, but the tone of the first half reflected North Dakota State's style of win through field position and physical defense.
The Bearkats were kept off the scoreboard longer than at any point this season. They didn't score until Alaniz kicked a 24-yard field goal with 2:21 remaining in the second quarter, which tied the game 3-3.
Alaniz's 31-yard field goal with 40 seconds left then provided the 6-3 halftime advantage.
North Dakota State took a 3-0 lead on Ryan Jastram's 19-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in the first quarter, but settled for the short kick after being denied on third down from the Sam Houston 1-yard line, when Will Henry and Robert Shaw stuffed Sam Ojuri for no gain.
Ojuri (1,105 yards) and McNorton (1,020 yards) finished the season as the first pair of 1,000-yard rushers in the same North Dakota State backfield.
"Our challenge now is to keep the moment going," Bohl said. "But we're going to sit back and enjoy this victory for quite some time."