MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Ted Clem was the difference the last time North Dakota State lost a national championship football game more than three decades ago.
In 1984, Clem was a true freshman walk-on kicker for Troy State (Ala.). He booted the game-winning 50-yard field goal as time expired to win the NCAA Division II championship.
“What everybody asks about is the kick,” said Clem, who now lives in Montgomery, Ala. “It’s hard to describe a scenario as a kicker to where it gets better than that. I’m not sure what it would be.”
Clem’s clutch kick lifted the Trojans to an 18-17 victory in McAllen, Texas, with the Bison trying to repeat as Division II champions.
“It was taken right from out of your grasp,” said Chad Stark, a sophomore running back for the 1984 Bison team. “That was a tough game.”
The Bison have won the last 11 national championship games in which they've played since that setback, including four Division II crowns to go along with seven Division I Football Championship Subdivision national titles.
NDSU (15-0) has a chance to extend its title game winning streak at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, against James Madison (14-1) at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The Bison have a 12-2 record in title games during their program history. Their other championship game loss was a 42-13 loss against Texas State in 1981.
NDSU's three other national championships were via rankings (1965, 1968, 1969) with the NCAA playoff format starting in 1973.
Since his big kick in 1984, Clem said he’s paid attention to the Bison.
“You tend to follow them throughout,” said Clem, who also played for Troy’s 1987 national title team. “I’ve just been amazed by their success through the years.”
Ken Kubisz kicked a 19-yard field goal to give the Bison a 17-15 lead with 1 minute, 36 seconds to play in the fourth quarter during the 1984 title game, which was played in early December. NDSU had it first-and-goal at the Troy 1-yard line, but was unable to score a touchdown. Bison quarterback Dale Hammerschmidt, who was in the game for starter Jeff Bentrim, was stopped short of the goal line on the first-and-goal play. That's as close as NDSU got to scoring a touchdown on that drive as it lost yardage on the second-and-goal play.
“There’s a bunch of things you can go back and what ifs,” Stark said.
The Trojans started the ensuing drive from their own 15-yard line with 1:29 to play. Quarterback Carey Christensen guided his team past midfield.
Troy faced a third-and-6 at the Bison 35 with 29 seconds to play. Christensen scrambled ahead for a few yards, making it fourth down with the clock running. The Trojans had used up their timeouts earlier in the drive.
“Honestly as a kicker, I preferred that because it doesn’t give you much time,” Clem said in hindsight. “You got out there with all your focus on the kick. All I have to do is do my job, probably the best scenario for me as a freshman.”
Clem and the field goal unit rushed onto the field with the game clock running down. He then drilled a 50-yarder as time expired to cap the dramatic 18-17 victory. Clem was mobbed by his teammates after he hit the big kick. His career long prior to that was 45 yards.
“The guy still came in with no timeouts, the clock running and nails it from forever,” Stark said. “That could have been (good from) 65 yards.”
Clem credited Troy State head coach Chan Gailey, who went on to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, for preparing the team for that final sequence.
“That’s a scenario we had practiced weekly,” said Clem, who now works for the Alabama Department of Commerce. “Based on practice, we really only needed about a dozen seconds to get everybody up there ready and set. We had enough time.”
Stark remembers how calm Troy State looked in those closing moments.
“It didn’t look like they had any pressure,” Stark said. “They just got their guys out there and just went through it like it was no big deal.”
Clem played his high school football in Georgiana, Ala., a town with a population nearing 2,000 and located around 60 miles south of Montgomery. He didn’t get a lot of college football recruiting attention and said he “almost had to beg” to walk on at Troy State (which has since shortened its name to Troy and moved to the FBS and plays in the Sun Belt Conference) prior to the 1984 season.
Clem said when he first inquired about trying to make the team at Troy State, he was told to show up in September when school opened. Clem told the team he wasn’t going to try out unless there was a spot for him during training camp.
“They called me a week before camp and said you had a spot,” Clem said.
On opening day, Clem said he was the last man on the team to get equipment and he ended up with oversized shoulder pads and an oversized helmet.
Clem said there were two scholarship kickers on the team, but he made an impression the first chance the coaches got to see them kick as a group.
A couple weeks later, Clem got a better helmet. After his freshman season, he was put on scholarship.
Clem said through the years he’s been asked about his 50-yarder more times than he can count. He compared that clutch kick to hitting a perfect golf shot.
“You just hit the sweet spot,” Clem said. “That’s exactly it, the feeling. I struck it well and it was on line, on target. … What a crazy moment that was.”