A rare fake punt kick-started Bison FCS national title run in Frisco

FARGO — To a lot of players and fans it probably seems like a few years ago when North Dakota State descended on Frisco, Texas, for its first appearance in the NCAA Division I FCS national title game. The reality is that game against Sam Houston State was nine seasons ago. It was a tight game in which the Bison trailed in the second half and the play that may have kicked off the unprecedented run of championships came from an unexpected source.

A punter, of all players.

A fake punt from Matt Voigtlander was the springboard play in NDSU’s 17-6 win over Sam Houston State in the 2011 Football Championship Subdivision title game. The Bison will be gunning for their eighth crown in nine years on Jan. 11 when they face James Madison at Toyota Stadium.

It was a play made by a career running back-turned-punter for his final season of football.

“Obviously it was a unique position change,” Voigtlander said Tuesday, Dec. 31, “and to have that be my role that year and to be part of that in the last game I ever played is certainly special and cool to be a part of.”

The timing of the fake was impeccable.

From the beginning of the second quarter until the first series of the third quarter, the Bison offense had an interception after two plays followed by three straight three-and-outs. Nothing seemed to be working.

NDSU got six yards on the first play of the third quarter, but running back Sam Ojuri was stuffed for no gain on second down-and-4. ESPN analyst David Diaz-Infante sensed the drag in the NDSU offense on third-and-4 on the first series of the third quarter as he said it was a “big third down for the Bison.”

“And one of the most critical series of the game is the first series in the second half. Can you change the momentum of the game?” Diaz-Infante said.

The answer was yes, only not on that third down play. As it was, a pressured Brock Jensen, a sophomore quarterback, threw high over the middle to an open Ryan Smith, a sophomore receiver. NDSU faced fourth down.

So the Bison sent in the punt unit. That’s where assistant coach Tim Polasek came into the picture.

“That was a pretty cool coaching deal; it happened exactly how we penciled it in,” Voigtlander said.

The cool deal came as a result of film study by Polasek, who worked with the punt unit.

“It was early on in the process,” Polasek said. “I just remember going to coach (Craig) Bohl and saying I think we’ve got something here. We repped it quite a bit.”

The Thursday before the title game, Bohl reiterated to Polasek about having the fake ready. There were two elements to the play, Polasek said. If Sam Houston gave NDSU the defensive look the Bison wanted, it was a go. If not, a shout of the color “black” was to call off the play.

“It was an easy shutdown and we would punt the ball,” Polasek said. “Coach Bohl is not a big ‘fake’ guy.”

Before the play, Bohl and Polasek had a quick conversation. Bohl said “it’s a go,” Polasek said.

It looked like any other punt. Voigtlander took the snap from long snapper Michael Murphy, but at the blink of an eye took off to his left. Sam Houston rushed two players from the opposite side toward Voigtlander, but nobody was on the other.

Lineman Anthony LaVoy was in front of Voigtlander and it was so open that even LaVoy had a tough time figuring out who to block.

“(Polasek) said if they line up the same way as they did on film, no way this doesn’t work,” Voigtlander said.

It worked to the tune of 27 yards and a first down.

On the next play, running back D.J. McNorton took a middle screen pass from Jensen with left tackle Billy Turner directly in front of him. It was a play that was a staple of the Bison attack in 2010, but McNorton said he didn’t think they ran it all that often in 2011.

He said the play-call from offensive coordinator Brent Vigen, now the offensive coordinator at Wyoming, was “brilliant.”

“Vigen dialed it up right after a huge play,” McNorton said. “They were scrambling. It was a play-action type of look, got the ball in the middle and when I turned there was nothing but green grass and a lot of guys blocking for me.”

A Sam Houston defender did not get a hand on McNorton until the 2-yard line and by then it was much too late. The 39-yard touchdown pass gave the Bison a 10-6 lead they would not surrender.

It was a play that was set up by the fake. Ironically, NDSU hasn’t run a fake punt since.

“We hadn’t run a fake all year and a lot of us were kind of waiting when they were going to do it,” McNorton said. “I had no clue we were running it. No clue, it was almost like you forgot about it. But Voigt was a running back and a really good running back.”

That fake gave Voigtlander 646 career rushing yards, with the most (265) coming in his redshirt freshman season. But an increased talent pool at running back with McNorton and Ojuri and the graduation of punter John Prelvitz from the year before created an opening at the position.

McNorton is a teacher and coach at his alma mater Channelview High School in Houston. Voigtlander, who works for a small financial planning firm in Plymouth, Minn., just had his third child on Tuesday.

Those two on back-to-back plays helped kick-start Bison history.

“You look back on how some things impacted the whole streak,” said Polasek, now the offensive line coach at Iowa. “That was one of them.”