By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
FRISCO, TX. — History is not North Dakota State's friend.
On the eve of the NCAA Division I Football Championship, the Bison are trying to accomplish something no other team has managed — to win a rematch in the Football Championship Subdivision title game.
If history prevails, it will be Sam Houston State holding up the winner's trophy following Saturday's championship encounter at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, TX.
The game between last year's championship combatants will be played at 1 p.m. and broadcast on ESPN2.
North Dakota State dominated last year's contest defensively on the way to a 17-6 victory, but the Bison know that Saturday's game has every potential to be more difficult.
"I don't think, I know, it is very difficult to go back to back," said North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl in Friday's team press conference. "It's an unusual task."
And Bohl is the first to admit that the 13-1 Bearkat club his Bison will face on Saturday is better than the one that NDSU beat a year ago.
"I do believe Sam Houston is a better football team than they were last year," said Bohl. "Last year, they were pretty one-dimensional offensively, but they’ve really improved their running game this year. I would anticipate it being a higher-scoring game this year."
Saturday's game will mark the fourth time in 35 years of what began as I-AA football that teams have played rematches for the national title.
And in the previous three rematches, the losing team from the previous year's game came away with victories the second time around.
In 1991, Youngstown State toppled Marshall 25-17 by scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter in Statesboro, GA.
But a year later, playing on its home field, Marshall exacted some revenge in the most unlikely of ways.
Thundering Herd coach Jim Donnan suspended regular place kicker David Merrick before the title game for being late to a practice. In Merrick's place, Donnan added his brother Willie from the school's soccer program to play his first college football game.
Sure enough, Youngstown State made another stirring comeback to turn a 28-0 deficit into a 28-all deadlock and set the stage for Willie Merrick to decide the game.
Quarterback Michael Payton took 13 plays, mixing runs and passes, to move Marshall from its own 19 to the YSU five and set the stage for Willie Merrick to kick his first and only college field goal from 22 yards with seven seconds left and Marshall won its first NCAA title 31-28.
But a year later, when the same two teams met again, Youngstown State built an early 17-0 lead in the first quarter and let its defense do the rest in a 17-5 victory to avenge that 1992 loss.
Moving ahead to 1995, Marshall seemed on the verge of another championship with a 20-19 lead late after Montana had built a 19-10 advantage earlier in the fourth quarter.
But Montana quarterback Dave Dickensen had one last comeback in his arm and moved the Grizzlies into field goal range in the waning seconds.
Andy Larsen had made one field goal from 48 yards and missed one from 37 earlier in the game, but his kick from 25 yards out split the uprights to give Montana its first title with a 22-20 victory on Marshall's home turf.
When Marshall and Montana met again in 1996, both teams were undefeated, but it was the Randy Moss-led Thundering Herd that dominated the action in a 49-29 victory that wasn't nearly that close on the field.
Last year, North Dakota State turned a 6-3 halftime deficit into a championship largely because of a successful fake punt.
Punter Matt Voigtlander turned a fake into a 27-yard scamper on fourth and four from the NDSU 34 on the Bison's opening possession of the third period to pick up a key first down.
"Matt Voigtlander has been a running back for us for a lot of years, but we had not used a fake at all," Bohl said. "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."
The call worked to perfection.
"My eyes were wide open seeing the open field, and I did what I could," Voigtlander said.
On the next play, quarterback Brock Jensen hit D.J. McNorton for 39 yards, as McNorton worked his way downfield through some terrific blocking to score the first touchdown of the game.
The Bison added another score in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
But Sam Houston State can take solace in the work of those Marshall and Youngstown State teams from the past.
And a few players from both teams probably remember that 2009 regular-season game when Sam Houston State pulled out a late win against North Dakota State at home to win 48-45.
Then-freshman Miguel Antonio drilled a 24-yard field goal with 26 seconds left to lift the Bearkats to the win after quarterback Blake Joseph moved them 72 yards in 10 plays.
Bearkat coach Willie Fritz is more concerned with game preparation than any historical rematch trends, however.
“Each team is different each season," said Fritz. "When the ball is kicked off, it’s all about preparation. We’re focused on playing the very best we can play."
The Bearkats are playing their best ball of the season at just the right time.
“It’s difficult (to get back)," Fritz admitted. "That was one of our goals coming into the season. We want to be one of those programs that are in this type of game year after year."
While SHSU (11-3) didn't go undefeated before the title game this season, the Bearkats turned things on enough at playoff time to earn another shot at a national title.
"We started off in tough fashion (1-2 after three games), and basically we were in playoff mode from that point on," Fritz said. "The kids were able to win seven games in a row, and qualify for the NCAA playoffs. We’ve played four games at home and 10 on the road, so we’ve really earned the right to be back here."
And if history repeats itself, Sam Houston State will take its place as an NCAA champion.