By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
FRISCO, TX. — In a dozen years of watching NCAA Division I Championship Football games, I’ve seen a lot of matchups dominated by defensive linemen and incredible offensive talents.
I’ve even seen entire teams be dominated from start to finish.
Saturday was the first time, however, I’ve ever seen a Football Championship Subdivision title game dominated by a punter.
In a game that was supposed to be a matchup between the Bison’s No. 1 defense and the Bearkat’s No. 1 offense, it was North Dakota State punter Matt Voigtlander who stole the show in front of a vocal, sellout crowd in Frisco, Texas.
Viewed from the traditional fans perspective of excitement — you know, touchdowns and scoring — the first half, which resulted in three field goals and a 6-3 Sam Houston State lead at halftime, might have seemed a disappointment.
But seen from a punter’s perspective, the first half was a clinic of booming kicks, great punt coverage and the use of great special teams play to control both offenses.
Sam Houston State punter Matt Foster booted a 40-yard kick after the Bearkats’ first attempt at penetrating the brick wall called the Bison defense was unsuccessful.
Then, after the Bison’s first offensive drive was stopped short, Voigtlander set the tone for a banner punting day for both sides with a booming 66-yard punt that sailed over the head of dangerous Bearkat return man Brandon Closner.
Not bad for a part-time running back, who had only taken over the full-time punting duties this spring.
“Part of it we had the wind coming out of the north,” Voigtlander said. “That definitely was a big help. And just caught it good and carried it through the wind and got over his head, and it wasn’t returned.”
Before the game, Bison head coach Craig Bohl made it a point of emphasis that field position was going to be a critical aspect.
And when the Bearkats had been able to do what few teams had been able to do on North Dakota State all season — force turnovers — that part of the Bison game plan was in jeopardy.
“Typically we’re way ahead in the turnover margin,” Bohl said. “We had to battle some things. [But] I thought our defensive guys did a phenomenal job keeping Sam out of the end zone there, because they played on the short field a little bit more than I would have liked.”
One of those plays was a partially-blocked Voigtlander punt that occurred when the blocking broke down in the middle of the Bison’s formation.
The kick, intentionally hit at a low angle for more distance, was tipped by the extended arms of Bearkat Michael Buse, the only punt rusher on the play. It gave the Bearkats the ball in Bison territory.
Voightlander’s next punt, a 37-yard boot, was returned well by Closner, where the Bearkat would find a seam in the kick coverage and rip off a 24-yard return to the NDSU 38.
In both occasions with the Bearkats in good field position, the Bison defense would stiffen in the red zone, holding Sam Houston State to field goals when touchdowns might have been devastating.
“We have a saying, bend but don’t break,” said linebacker Travis Beck, who stopped Bearkat wideout Trey Diller well short of the marker after a third-down pass from Bearkat quarterback Brian Bell. “And we showed great resilience. We just tried to get off the field and let our offense do their thing.”
At halftime, with Sam Houston State up 6-3 thanks to those two field goals, the game had already featured eight punts, with both Voigtlander and Foster connecting on boots of more than 50 yards.
Even with the partially-blocked kick, Voigtlander averaged 44.8 yards per punt — while Foster, who had out-dueled him in the first half, averaged 47.0 yards.
After the Bison got the ball first in the second half, an incomplete pass to Ryan Smith resulted in Voigtlander trotting out on the field once again.
This time, though, the call would be different.
“Coach Polasek did a nice job scheming up, since we didn’t know how Sam Houston would align, but we had some things in place,” Bohl said. “We had not used a fake at all [all year]. We kind of kept it in our hip pocket, felt like there’d be a game that we’d need it — and this was the game we needed it in.”
Voigtlander — only an “emergency running back” for the Bison, as he called himself — said he “looked to the outside, got out of the box, came down, [saw the] blocking down like we were expecting, and it was wide open. So my eyes were wide open seeing the open field,and I did what I could.”
The result was a 27-yard run down the left side of the field, with the tackle made by none other than Brandon Closner, the returnman that had set up the last play of the first half.
On the very next play — riding the high of the successful fake punt — running back D.J. McNorton took a perfectly executed screen pass from quarterback Brook Jensen and sliced through the heart of the Bearkat defense for the first touchdown of the game, a 39-yard pass and catch that was the longest play from scrimmage up until that point.
“We came in [the Bison program] together as running backs,” McNorton said after the game. “[Voightlander] helped me so much as far as learning schemes and different types of formations on defense. So I’ve been waiting for him to run.”
McNorton wasn’t surprised by the results.
“We finally called [the fake punt], I’ve been waiting for him to do it. And we originally planned on him running for about 60 [yards] and the touchdown. But he kind of let us down on that.”
Considering how important the fake punt and run was to NDSU’s title win, Voigtlander took some flack from his teammates.
“I got a hard time from the guys saying that shouldn’t have went down and that I lost some of it,” Voightlander added. “But as open as it was, just about anyone could have done what I did with the wide open field.”
Bohl’s call of the fake punt, in retrospect, seemed as gutsy as the New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton calling for an onsides kick in the opening play of the second half of Super Bowl XLIV.
“Coach Bohl, fantastic job on the fake punt,” Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz said. “That really was a big, big play in the ballgame, and they came back and hit the very next play, and now it’s kind of a momentum changer.”
Eerily, before the game Bohl said he thought that the most important drive would be the first one of the second half.
“We really felt like we needed to establish some momentum and Sam Houston is such a prolific football team coming into the third quarter,” Bohl said. “So we were disappointed we couldn’t come up with a first down in our normal way. Things were right and I thought our players executed a great idea.”
Voigtlander’s role in the game hardly ended with the fake punt.
Crucial to the Bison’s chances at victory, the senior punter was needed to keep the Bearkats pinned deep in their own territory for the rest of the third quarter — something Bohl had emphasized before the game.
And Voigtlander’s execution proved to be lethal.
After defensive end Cole Jirik stuffed Bearkat running back Tim Flanders on a fourth and one play, the Bison offense drove to their own 46, where a 53-yard punt by Voigtlander, downed at the one-yard line, pinned the Bearkats deep yet again.
Voigtlander added another 41-yard punt at the end of the third quarter, locking the Bearkats deep on their side of the field again as the third quarter came to an end.
A 36-yard punt by Voigtlander late in the game, designed more to deny any sort of return, set up the final big play that put the game away for the Bison.
Finally with some field position to work with, Sam Houston State’s offensive coaches tried to find an open seam in the Bison pass defense to break a big play.
But linebacker Travis Beck was not fooled at all, knowing right where to go as he nabbed the interception at the Bison 36-yard line.
Beck rumbled 63 yards to the Bearkat one-yard line, and as soon as quarterback Brock Jensen sneaked the ball in for the touchdown, you had the feeling the Bison would be hoisting their first-ever FCS National Championship banner.
Thanks, in no small part, to a backup running back that had to punt to get onto the first team.
“I think field position certainly came into play,” Bohl said. “Particularly in the fourth quarter. That wind had a difference there, and so did having them pinned deep like that. Margins for victory and losses are very slim.”
Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz and most everyone else who watched the game with remember Voigtlander.
“They’re a solid ball club,” Fritz explained. “They’re good in all three phases. [They’ve got] a very good punter.”