Like seasoned boxers in the midst of a championship bout, the Sam Houston Bearkats took Stephen F. Austin’s best shots for 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon.
As the game wore on, the upset-minded Lumberjacks began to break down and the 11th-ranked Bearkats delivered blow after punishing blow, eventually overwhelming Stephen F. Austin in the 86th Battle of the Piney Woods.
Sam Houston got some sweet payback against their archrivals, who knocked off the Kats the past two years, with a 45-10 shellacking in front of 25,083 fans at Reliant Stadium.
The crowd was the largest in “Battle of the Piney Woods” series history and the most fans ever for a Sam Houston State game vs. an NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
“Last year we came in here thinking about the rivalry and I don’t know if it caught us off-guard. I’m not sure what happened,” Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell said of Sam Houston’s narrow 31-28 loss to Stephen F. Austin last October.
“That was a close game and we’ve been thinking about it ever since. There’s not a time where we’re going to the weight room or going to practice when we’re not talking about beating SFA.
“Just to come out here and to beat them pretty handily, that’s just a great feeling for us to sit back and soak it all in.”
As the third quarter got under way, the Kats, who improved to 2-0 in Southland Conference play and 5-0 overall, knew they had a dogfight on their hands while holding a slim 10-3 lead.
With momentum still in its favor, Sam Houston struck quickly.
Early in the third quarter, the Kats ran four straight running plays before going deep. On third-and-8 from their own 45, Bell scrambled around the pocket before hitting a wide-open Keith Blanton downfield.
The freshman found an opening after the Lumberjacks’ coverage broke down and hauled in the pass, pushing the Kats ahead 17-3.
“It was pretty big. Coming out of the second half, it was pretty big,” Blanton said. “We needed that for some momentum.”
Again, the Bearkats got pressure on Lumberjacks quarterback Brady Attaway and defensive lineman Andrew Weaver picked off an errant pass deep inside SFA territory.
Following an 8-yard keeper by Richard Sincere, running back Tim Flanders scored with a spectacular effort, leaping over safety Caleb Nelson and twisting in mid-air, landing back on his feet before celebrating on the ground.
Sam Houston later capitalized on another turnover, which was a common theme in the quarter, and Taylor, who came up with a pick, returned it all the way to the 8-yard line.
Flanders burst up the middle and into the end zone on the next play. Just like that, the Kats had a 31-3 advantage with a quarter and change to play.
“It was momentum. When you turn the ball over, you’d like to think that you can stiffen up in there and continue doing it,” SFA head coach J.C. Harper said. “Momentum switches on a turnover. … Sam Houston took advantage of that.
“That’s why to me, great football teams – Sam Houston’s 5-0 if I’m right — take advantage of those opportunities. Sam Houston did in a quick and physical way.”
Not only did the Bearkats come up with key turnovers in the third quarter, but found a way to score off those, which wasn’t the case in the first half when the Kats scored just three points off three turnovers.
“I thought our kids really responded in the second half. We had a lot of adversity in the first half,” Sam Houston head coach Willie Fritz said.
“We didn’t capitalize on two or three opportunities to maybe go into halftime with a really big lead, but we came out in the second half and really played well in all three phases.”
The Bearkats kept attacking the Lumberjacks’ defensive front with the ground game and were able to gash their way for big plays.
Late in the quarter, Sincere sprinted through SFA’s defensive line, breaking three tackles for a 51-yard gain on a quarterback keeper that put Sam Houston in the red zone again. The speedy sophomore finished off the drive with a 4-yard score.
On the next possession with backups coming in for valuable playing time, running backs Ryan Wilson and Keyshawn Hill chewed their way up the middle and Sincere capped another TD drive with a 9-yard keeper, which gave the Kats a 45-3 lead.
After being held to just 19 rushing yards in the first half, the Bearkats ended up with 217 yards on the ground.
“In the beginning, we were frustrated a little bit, but then our coaches told us to be calm and be patient and eventually it’ll come,” Sincere said.
“Once we got going with our passing game, that opened things up for our run game and nobody can stop us when we’re running the ball.”
It wasn’t until there was a little more than three minutes remaining that the Lumberjacks scored their first touchdown of the game on a 7-yard Attaway-to-Cordell Roberson connection.
Stephen F. Austin (0-2, 1-5) came into Saturday’s game boasting the 12th-ranked total offense in the FCS, averaging 438 yards per game (330.0 passing and 138.0 rushing, but the Bearkats defense held the Lumberjacks to just 274 yards of offense.
“It’s a challenge every week,” Taylor said. “We challenge our DBs mainly every week and they go out there and play man defense. Everybody knows we’re going to do it and we stop teams. It’s big.”
For the first few drives of the first quarter, the Bearkats were pinned up against their own goal line and they were unable to get into a rhythm.
After Kats cornerback Daxton Swanson swiped an interception that was tipped in the air by safety Robert Shaw late in the first quarter, Sam Houston started to get its passing game going and began to move the ball with some efficiency.
Immediately following the Lumberjacks’ 40-yard field goal by Jordan Wiggs, the Bearkats responded on the next drive.
On third-and-9 from the Lumberjacks’ 49, Bell looked off receivers to the left and hit Torrance Williams on the right side of the field. Williams shook off a defender and streaked up the middle for a 49-yard touchdown.
The score gave the Kats a lead they did not relinquish.
“Once our passing game started to get going and we started to get some momentum, we started to move the ball with a lot more consistently,” Bell said.
Sam Houston returns home on Saturday as the Bearkats host the Nicholls Colonels for their homecoming game, which is scheduled to kick off at 2 p.m.
The Colonels, 37-31 losers on Saturday to Central Arkansas, are 0-2 in SLC play and 1-5 on the season.