FARGO, N.D. (AP) North Dakota used a familiar formula of John Crockett and a stingy defense to earn their fourth straight trip to the FCS championship game.
Crockett ran for three touchdowns and the Bison suffocated Sam Houston State’s offense in the second half for a 35-3 win before more than 18,000 fans at Friday’s semifinal game.
The three-time defending champion Bison (14-1) will return to Frisco, Texas, in January with the hopes of becoming the first team in the division formerly known as I-AA to win four straight titles. Appalachian State has also won three in a row.
”You can’t really put it into words,” Bison defensive end Kyle Emanuel said. ”It’s just awesome to do it with this group of people, this group of seniors.”
The Bearkats (11-5) were trying to find their way back to Frisco after losing back-to-back title games to NDSU in 2011 and 2012. Sam Houston State had a statistical edge in the first half but the Bison offense piled up 217 yards in the third quarter to break open a close game.
NDSU scored 28 unanswered points in the second half.
”We actually wore out in the second half. That’s a great credit to them,” Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler said. ”We’re disappointed but I’m very proud of my kids.”
Crockett, who last week rushed for a school playoff record 227 yards, finished with 166 yards rushing. He was held to just 27 yards in the first half, partly because the Bison had trouble throwing the ball to their wide receivers. Crockett finished as NDSU’s leading receiver with 66 yards.
Clinging to a 7-3 halftime lead despite being outgained 164-99 in total offense, Crockett said the Bison put the game in the hands of their offensive line.
”We said let’s settle down and do what we do,” Crocket said. ”Let’s play Bison football.”
NDSU began to take command with a 90-yard drive midway through the third quarter that only took four plays, the last a 33-yard touchdown run by King Frazier to make it 14-3. Crockett ignited the drive with a 16-yard run, his longest to that point, and then caught a 35-yard pass from quarterback Carson Wentz.
That was the first of four straight scoring drives for NDSU. The Bison got the ball back at their own 45 after the Bearkats went three-and-out, and on the next play Crockett scored on a 55-yard run. That made it 21-3 at the 6:32 mark of the third quarter.
It was more Crockett on the next possession. He had 10 carries for 58 yards, including the last 10 when he dragged several tacklers into the end zone to make it 28-3 early in the fourth quarter.
The Bison defense, which has been the linchpin to three straight titles, rebounded after giving up the most points in four years in a 39-32 win over Coastal Carolina last year. Nick DeLuca had a team-high 13 tackles and an interception. Emanuel, who earlier in the week was honored with the Buck Buchanan Award as the best player in FCS, had 11 tackles including 2 1/2 sacks.
”They heard everything in the last couple of weeks, that boy they’re not that good,” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said of his defense, which ranked 1st in the nation in scoring defense. ”I am so proud of those guys.”
Said Emanuel, ”Just personally, and our defense as a whole, we weren’t satisfied. I told the guys we had to get our swagger back.”
Sam Houston quarterback Jared Johnson threw for 227 yards and led his team with 66 yards rushing. But he said the Bearkats missed some opportunities to take the lead and momentum in the first half. He had a couple of long passes that just missed his receivers.
”In this type of game, those types of plays would have changed the game,” Johnson said.