Cheney, WA (Sports Network) - Whew.
If you're connected with the Sam Houston State football program, that's the
feeling Saturday night despite the Bearkats returning to the NCAA Division I
Football Championship Game.
The unseeded Southland Conference co-champion survived a nearly historic
collapse against second-seeded Eastern Washinghton, 45-42, in the national
semifinals, completing a unique playoff sweep of the tri-champions from the
Big Sky Conference.
The Bearkats (11-3), whose 35-0 halftime lead was nearly whittled all the way
down, set up a championship game rematch against top-seeded North Dakota State
(13-1) on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas. NDSU won last season's title game, 17-6.
North Dakota State can breath a little easier that it's a Missouri Valley
Football Conference member. Before Sam Houston State beat Big Sky tri-champion
Eastern Washington, it eliminated the other two champions, Cal Poly and
Montana State, from the playoffs.
Coach Willie Fritz's Bearkats reached the title game again because they built
the big halftime cushion. The second half seemed like it would be
anticlimactic, but it wasn't when Eastern Washington redshirt freshman
quarterback Vernon Adams, in relief of starter Kyle Padron, threw for six
His final one, and the third one to Brandon Kaufman - a 33-yarder with 3:04
left in the fourth quarter - pulled Eastern Washington within 45-42.
The Eagles followed with an onside kick, but Trey Diller recovered it for Sam
Houston State. From there, the Bearkats ran the ball eight times, picking
up two first downs, to end the game.
Sam Houston State running back Timothy Flanders didn't find the end zone in
the scoreathon, but the junior All-America finished with 231 yards on 34
carries. The Bearkats rushed for 418 yards, including 292 in the first half.
Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin talked at halftime about being an
optimist, but few could have forseen his team's comeback from a 35-0 deficit.
After the Eagles (11-3) pulled within 42-35 on Adams' 7-yard touchdown pass to
Nicholas Edwards with 9:48 left, the Bearkats probably thought they had enough
breathing room again when Miguel Antonio kicked a 42-yard field goal to make
it 45-35 with 5:33 left.
The points proved to be the winning margin while Sam Houston State barely
avoided FCS infamy. The host Eagles nearly matched the largest second-half
comeback ever for a win - Nevada's rally from 35 points down to beat Weber
State, 55-49, on Nov. 2, 1991.
In the first half, Sam Houston State's big-play ability was too much for
Eastern Washington, which entered the game with five straight wins and a 7-0
record at home on its red field. But "The Inferno" was just a cold unwelcoming
turf for the Eagles during the first-half blitzkrieg.
Quarterback Brian Bell capped the Bearkats' opening drive with a 6-yard
touchdown run with 7:34 left in the first quarter
Robert Shaw then scored on a 37-yard interception return of a Padron pass and
Sam Houston State pushed its lead to 14-0 with 3:08 left in the quarter.
Bell scored on 72-yard touchdown early in the second quarter, and then the
lead swelled to 35-0 when Keshawn Hill and Richard Sincere scored on runs.
Shaw's second interception of the game - this time off Adams - came in Sam
Houston State's end zone and denied Eastern Washington a touchdown with 3:06
Three of Adams' touchdown passes came in the third quarter - a 21-yarder to
Greg Herd on the Eagles' first drive, a 22-yarder to Kaufman which gave him
the FCS single-season record for receiving yards and, following a recovered
onside kick, a 43-yarder to Ashton Cook.
Kaufman then caught a 43-yard touchdown by wrestling a long pass away from Sam
Houston State cornerback Dax Swanson in the Bearkats' end zone, making it
35-28 with 13:03 left in the fourth quarter.
Flanders fueled Sam Houston State's ensuing drive with a 49-yard rush and Bell
capped it with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Shane Young, making it 42-28 with
Swanson picked off Adams with 5:20 left in the game for his 14th career
interception, a new school record. Ronnie Choate first set the Sam Houston
career record with 13 picks from 1955-59.
Adams completed 14-of-26 pass attempts for 364 yards. Padron threw for 117
yards, giving Eastern Washington 481 yards through the air.
Kaufman finished with nine receptions for 216 yards. His 1,851 receiving yards
surpassed the previous FCS single-season record of 1,712 yards set by
Delaware's Eddie Conti in 1998.
Sam Houston State was the preseason No. 1 and is 11-1 against FCS teams,
losing only to Southland co-champion Central Arkansas as well as FBS members
Baylor and Texas A&M.
The Sam Houston State-North Dakota State game will mark the third meeting
since the championships began in 1978 that the same opponents have met in the
final in back-to-back years. Marshall and Youngstown State battled in both the
1991 and 1992 championship games before Marshall and Montana faced off in both
the 1995 and 1996 finals.
The Sports Network