Don’t tell these guys they’re too young, too inexperienced or simply aren’t good enough to be considered among the best in the nation.
Sam Houston State answered the call in a big way in the biggest moment of the year and outlasted Montana 31-28 on Friday night to move on to the Football Championship Subdivision national title game.
“I don’t think it’s really set in yet,” Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell said. “That’s what we dreamed of since day one, going to the national championship. It’s the best feeling in the world.
“This one is for everybody who is involved in this program – alumni, coaches, professors, classmates. If you’ve got something to do with Sam Houston, this one was for you. This one was for everybody.”
The unbeaten and top-ranked Bearkats (14-0) await the winner of today’s semifinal game between No. 2 seed North Dakota State and No. 3 seed Georgia Southern, which kicks off at 1:30 p.m. CST from the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D., and will be aired on ESPNU.
Grasping a slim three-point edge with just a few minutes to play, the Bearkats had a big decision to make with a fourth-and-1 from their own 47-yard line. Either gamble and go for it or punt the ball back to Montana, which had success moving the ball against Sam Houston’s defense in the second half.
It didn’t take long to come up a choice and hope for the best.
Luckily for the Bearkats and head coach Willie Fritz, gambling turned out to be the right decision.
Leaning heavily on running back Tim Flanders, who ran for a career-high and school-record 287 yards, the Kats gave the ball to their steady tailback. Flanders ran away from Grizzly tacklers on a counter for a 22-yard gain, which ultimately sealed the victory and a trip to the national title game.
“It looked like (Fritz) already decided (that we were going for it on fourth down),” Flanders said. “I got up and (Fritz) was still over by the punt team. I didn’t know if he was going to call it. He said, ‘Go for it,’ so we went for it.”
“We were doing such a good job moving the ball and Tim was just so hot,” Fritz said. “We needed about a yard and I felt like let’s just go ahead and get it. Thank goodness (offensive coordinator) Bob (DeBesse) made a nice call and Tim made a nice cut.”
In their final possession, the Bearkats gained two big first downs, especially their final one on fourth down. Sam Houston then gave it to Flanders one more time for a 9-yard gain, which gave him the single-game rushing record in Bearkat history. The Kats then went to the victory formation.
“When we got in there we knew we needed one more first down and the game was going to be iced. We have a chart that we use as far as how many timeouts they have and how much time was left on the clock,” Fritz said. “When we got that last first down, that iced the game and it was going to be over at that point.”
Sam Houston was able to avoid a near-monumental let down as Montana was able to cut the Bearkats 21-point lead down to 31-28 with a little less than 11 and a half minutes to play.
Just before halftime, Sam Houston was ahead 28-7 and looking for more points. Bell tried to make a play out of the pocket and Montana linebacker Caleb McSurdy deflected a pass and returned it for a 61-yard score to pull the Grizzlies to within two scores at 28-14.
That provided enough momentum for the Grizzlies heading into the break.
Following a 25-yard field goal by Bearkats kicker Craig Alaniz, which was set up by a fumble recovery by linebacker Eric Fieilo at the Grizzlies’ 9-yard line at the start of the third quarter, Montana moved down the field and chipped away at the deficit.
With just minutes to go in the third quarter, Grizzlies running back Jordan Canada punched the ball in from 3 yards out to get Montana to within 10 points at 31-21.
Montana then pulled closer after quarterback Jordan Johnson rushed for a 54-yard touchdown.
With the Grizzlies moving down the field and into Sam Houston territory for a game-tying or a possible go-ahead score midway through the fourth, the Bearkats forced Montana to punt the ball away after Johnson’s pass on third-and-11 fell incomplete with six minutes to play.
“I thought we would (get the ball back), but you can’t leave it up to the defense,” Johnson said. “It was my fault for underthrowing the ball. When plays are there to be made, you have to make them. I didn’t do that.”
The Bearkats, however, never gave the ball back, running the final six minutes off the clock. Flanders logged 49 rushing yards on the final drive, including the 22-yarder that clinched the victory.
“My thought was that we just have to keep getting first downs. That was the main thing,” Flanders said.
As the game got under way, the Bearkats had things under control early.
The Kats exploded out of the gate with 21 quick points in the opening quarter.
On Sam Houston’s first possession, Bell coasted into the end zone for an 11-yard run.
Following a missed 48-yard field goal by Montana kicker Brody McKnight, Sam Houston quickly capitalized. On the next play, Flanders took a handoff on a draw, broke three tackles and sprinted past would-be Grizzlies tacklers for a 69-yard touchdown run.
Before the end of the quarter, Bell found wide receiver Grant Merritt for a 20-yard touchdown to extend the Kats’ lead to 21-0.
“In the first half, we came out ready to play,” Bell said. “Our offensive line did a great job. Tim did an amazing job. Our receivers were blocking. Everything was just clicking in the first half.”
The Bearkats now have three weeks to rest up and prepare for either North Dakota State or Georgia Southern in the FCS national championship game, which will be played at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco on Jan. 7.