No doubt, it was one for the ages and a game that will be remembered for a long time.
After struggling early against the Stephen F. Austin defense, the Bearkats opened up the playbook and began to have their way in the passing game. They nearly scored at will throughout the second and third quarters Saturday.
When it came down to crunch time, ninth-ranked Sam Houston held a 23-point lead and desperately needed to find a way to finish off the rival Lumberjacks.
Stephen F. Austin made it interesting in the final minutes with what was nearly a miraculous comeback, but the Bearkats made a stop when they needed it, holding on for a thrilling 51-43 triumph in front of a record Battle of the Piney Woods crowd at Reliant Stadium.
“It was loads of fun,” Sam Houston junior cornerback Bookie Sneed said. “Just the atmosphere, seeing (26,185) people. You can’t ask for anything better than that. The game, it was fun. It was a real good game.”
With a little more than 13 minutes to play, Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell scrambled to his left and as he got close to the sideline, he dove for the pylon with the ball outstretched for a 9-yard score that extended the Kats’ lead to 51-28.
Thousands of Lumberjacks headed for the exits, but the 87th edition of the rivalry between Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin was far from over.
“We were just staying positive,” Stephen F. Austin quarterback Brady Attaway said. “In two other games (a 43-35 loss to Montana State and a 41-37 loss to Texas State), we were in the same situation. In both of those games, we fought back. We knew we were going to do the same thing this week.”
The Lumberjacks broke through for touchdowns on their next two possessions to put them back to within a score.
Sam Houston (1-1 in Southland Conference, 3-2 overall) took over with 5:23 to play and had gotten an all-important first down on Bell’s 7-yard scramble, which allowed the Kats to milk the clock down to 3:10 before punting.
The Kats brought out the offense on fourth-and-inches and tried to coax Stephen F. Austin (1-1, 2-4) to jump offsides, but the Lumberjacks stayed pat. As a result, the Bearkats punted and pinned SFA deep in its own territory, knowing full well their rivals needed a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 51.
“They needed to score and get a 2-point conversion. They had used some timeouts, so I was hoping we could get a good punt off and make them go the field,” Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. “I wasn’t going to go for it in that situation.”
Starting at their own 15-yard line, Attaway and the Lumberjacks chipped their way down the field. The sophomore and his favorite target, receiver Cordell Roberson, hooked up for three completions for 27 yards that helped put Stephen F. Austin within striking distance.
Down to the Bearkats’ 29, Attaway, who completed 39 of 76 passing attempts for 545 yards, fired four consecutive incompletions, including the final one on fourth down that was intended for Roberson.
“We were thinking about executing,” Attaway said. “If we execute our plays, we can get the ball down there.”
Sam Houston put itself in position to blow the game wide open as the passing game began to expose a weakness in SFA’s defense.
Bell, throwing from inside and outside of the pocket, was hitting his receivers exactly where he needed to and also made several heady plays down the stretch.
Holding a 23-14 edge at halftime, the Bearkats didn’t flinch, even when the Lumberjacks broke for a 77-yard catch-and-run touchdown strike on the first offensive play of the second half from Attaway to D.J. Ward.
The Kats answered that score with their own as Bell saw receiver Trey Diller took the inside track along the sideline against man-on-man coverage. Bell spiraled the ball into the end zone as Diller was able to secure the ball from underneath the defensive backs’ hands for a 31-yard touchdown.
“I don’t know (how I made that catch). It was just great ball placement by Brian. He made some crazy throws and he couldn’t have thrown it any better,” Diller said. “Just like we talked about in practice, I stepped him inside, get that outside release. I looked up and I saw the ball go up. I lost it at first and saw it come down at the last second and I laid out. I didn’t know if (the referee) was going to give me the catch. … That’s my job as a receiver, to make every play I possibly can.”
After the defense held the Lumberjacks to two consecutive three-and-outs in which Stephen F. Austin accumulated 0 yards, Sam Houston struck for two touchdowns within a span of less than three minutes.
First, Bell perfectly executed a fake field goal from the 1, placing the ball on the grass for a would-be 18-yard field goal, but quickly rising to his feet and sprinting past the linemen into the end zone to extend the lead to 37-21.
“It was a designed play,” Fritz said. “We’ve seen how they lined up when the ball was in the middle of the field or on the left hash. We’ve worked on it all week. It was a good time to call it and the kids executed it beautifully.”
Bell then lofted another ball into the back corner of the end zone where Torrance Williams found a way to come down with it and also getting a foot in bounds.
“When we get some confidence offensively and not beat ourselves, that’s when we play our best football,” Bell said. “We got some passes. Trey made a great catch. I don’t know how he caught that. It was a heck of a catch. Just stuff like that, people just making plays, that was real big for us in the passing game.”
The Bearkats’ offensive outburst all got started in the first half after coming up with just three points on a kickoff return and a blocked field goal, both of which were returned to the Lumberjacks 25- and 30-yard lines, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks converted for a pair of touchdowns on fumble recoveries to take a 14-3 lead at the beginning of the second quarter.
What helped kick-start the Sam Houston offense was an interception by Darnell Taylor that set up the Bearkats deep in SFA territory. Starting at the Lumberjacks’ 23, Sam Houston wasn’t about to be denied points again. Bell and Diller connected for a 15-yard reception, then wildkat specialist Richard Sincere moved the ball nine yards on a keeper to the 4.
On second down, Bell and tight end K.J. Williams converted on a play where Bell gave the impression that he was going to rush toward the goal line, but instead stepped back, jumped up and hit a wide open Williams on a play that Tim Tebow made famous with the Florida Gators.
The Bearkats were just starting to get cranking.
After a 22-yard field goal, Sam Houston was within 14-13, but Stephen F. Austin began to respond and churned down the field.
The Lumberjacks converted a fourth-and-6 from the SHSU 34 with a 23-yard completion and were knocking on the door. The Bearkats defense was backed up against its own goal line and knew it needed to make a play before Stephen F. Austin would go back up by a touchdown.
That’s when Sneed made the game-breaking play that gave Sam Houston a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Sneed broke free from his assignment on an out route, intercepting the pass and returning it 93 yards for a touchdown. The pick-6 set a school record for the longest interception return for a touchdown.
“You could feel the momentum shift back to our side. Credit to the offense, they went out there and they pushed hard,” Sneed said. “It was good overall for the team.”
It was all history from that point on as the Bearkats built a huge enough lead they could hold onto until the end.
“Our motto this year is finish,” Bell said. “That has to be our main focus. When we get ahead or get a lead, we have to finish. That’s our main focus going into every game, trying to get up and finish the game.”