Courtesy Cody Stark / The Huntsville Item / GoBearkats.com
The third-ranked Bearkats made sure nobody else was going to stake a claim to their Southland Conference championship Saturday. Northwestern State became the latest and last league opponent to run into the buzz saw that is Sam Houston State.
The Bearkats ran over and around the Demons to the tune of 443 yards of total offense. The defense played its normal ball-hawking style, snagging three turnovers and leading Sam Houston to an easy 43-17 victory over Northwestern State.
The Kats on Saturday completed a dominating run through league play with a perfect 7-0 record for its first outright Southland Conference crown in school history.
Sophomore running back Tim Flanders had another strong showing in his Walter Payton Award campaign, rushing for 145 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore wide receiver Richard Sincere had more than 100 yards receiving, 75 rushing and three scores to put the Bearkats (10-0 overall) in position to go undefeated in the regular season with one game left on the schedule.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Bowers Stadium, Kats head coach Willie Fritz was greeted to an ice-cold cooler bath. The team gathered at midfield and celebrated as SLC commissioner Tom Burnett handed the second-year head coach the championship trophy.
It was an emotional moment, especially for the Bearkat seniors, who took advantage of their final season to do something no other Sam Houston team has done at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
“It’s just awesome, being a senior and being able to go out with a championship,” SHSU senior linebacker Kash David said. “That is what every senior in the Southland Conference, across the nation, dreams about. They want to go undefeated and win a conference championship. My dream came true tonight.”
The Bearkats put the game away in the third quarter, something that has been a reoccurring theme this season. Sam Houston has outscored its opponents 139-10 in the first 15 minutes after halftime this year.
Up 23-7 at the break, Flanders caught a pass from sophomore quarterback Brian Bell down the left sideline with under 11 minutes to go in the third and outraced the Demon defense 35 yards for a touchdown. Sam Houston added two more scores on a 62-yard reception and a 12-yard run by Sincere to open up a comfortable lead as the defense held Northwestern State to just a field goal to go up 43-10.
“Our coaches preach to us at halftime that the score is 0-0 and we have to find some kind of way to win and dominate the third and fourth quarters,” Sincere said. “Coming into to halftime, we just think the score is 0-0 and we are going to play just like it is the first quarter.”
Sam Houston’s defense continued to set the tone early as the Demons had trouble moving the ball in the first half. Northwestern State’s only score before the break came on a bad snap to Sincere that defensive end Anthony Gilbert fell on top of in the end zone to cut SHSU’s lead to 23-7 with 4:16 to go in the second quarter.
The Bearkats jumped out to a quick lead in the first when Sincere caught a 31-yard pass from Bell, who was 10-of-14 for 200 yards, and broke loose for a 36-yard touchdown run on the opening drive.
Flanders, who now has 1,001 rushing yards on the season, tacked on a 15-yard scoring run and senior Craig Alaniz split the uprights on a 38-yard field goal to put the Kats up 16-0. Junior safety Darnell Taylor returned an interception off Demons quarterback Brad Henderson 23 yards for Sam Houston’s final score of the first half, which made it 23-0.
The second half was all Bearkats and they now have date with history next weekend. With a win over rival Texas State on Nov. 19, this Sam Houston team would match the 1956 squad as the only Bearkat teams in school history to cap the regular season with an unbeaten record.
“We are really excited, happy and proud to come away with this hard-fought victory,” Fritz said. “I know I sound like a broken record, but I really feel like I have the best coaching staff in the country. Those guys do a tremendous job.
“… I’m really proud of our seniors. I came in here a couple of years ago and they could have said ‘who is this crazy guy running around here with all this energy and different kind of philosophy.’ They embraced me and the coaching staff and they made it a heck of a lot quicker transition than a lot of people thought we would have had.”