With that, the Bearkats get their rematch in Frisco with defending champion and top-seeded North Dakota State in three weeks for the FCS national title.
“It feels great, but it won’t feel that good until we get the job done in the national championship,” Sam Houston senior safety Robert Shaw said.
After watching a 35-point advantage slip all the way down to just three at 45-42 in the final few minutes, the Bearkats went to their dependable running back Timothy Flanders. Flanders, who got the game-clinching first down in last year’s 31-28 semifinal victory against Montana, got the call on third-and-3 from the Eagles’ 21-yard line.
“I knew we had another down at the same time. It was third-and-3 and I just wanted to get the first down and try to get the game over with,” Flanders said.
Flanders grabbed the ball and saw an opening on the right side of the line. The junior tailback spun, then shrug off a few tacklers getting just enough yardage to move the chains and essentially put this win on ice and earn the Bearkats the final spot in the FCS national championship game.
With a huge 35-0 advantage at halftime in favor of Sam Houston, the Bearkats looked to be comfortably in control with just 30 minutes to play.
Eastern Washington had other ideas.
The Eagles made a game of it in the third quarter, scoring three touchdowns with backup quarterback Vernon Adams, who replaced an ineffective Kyle Padron, including two within a span of 1:03 thanks to a recovered onside kick.
Then, less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Adams launched a pass 43 yards down the sideline. Sam Houston cornerback Dax Swanson looked to have the interception, but Eagles standout receiver Brandon Kaufman got his hands on the ball and because of simultaneous possession, scored a touchdown to pull Eastern to within 35-28.
The Bearkats needed to respond in the worst way with the Eagles scoring 28 unanswered points and SHSU’s offense not doing much in the second half.
“We just had to keep our mind-set,” Flanders said. “We came out in the second half and we didn’t come out as fast as we did in the first half. We were on the sideline and we had a big offensive meeting and coaches were telling us to just keep our head in the game and keep our heads in the game and that’s what we did.”
The Kats converted for a momentum-swinging first down as Bell hit tight end Shane Young on second-and-9 from their own 41 for a big first down. Sam Houston later pushed its lead to 45-35 as senior kicker Miguel Antonio booted a 42-yard field goal, which matched a career high. That field goal ended being the difference.
“Miguel has just had a great year for us. Again, he comes through,” Bearkats coach Willie Fritz said. “I think he’s one of the top kickers in the country. He did a good job with kickoffs – we didn’t cover them very well – and I believe he’s 17 of 21 or 18 of 22.
“That was a big, big kick and he drilled it.”
Kaufman reeled in a 33-yard touchdown catch from Adams to pull Eastern to within a field goal. The Eagles could not recover the onside kick, and with a pair of first downs the Kats ran out the clock.
The first half was a different story altogether as the Kats rushed for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns.
On the opening possession, Eastern Washington’s potent passing attack looked the part as the Eagles picked up three first downs.
Once Eastern got into Sam Houston territory, the Bearkats buckled down and forced the drive to stall and a punt.
Though the Kats have struggled to get going offensively to start both of their previous playoff victories against Cal Poly and Montana State, that was not the case Saturday.
On its first drive, Sam Houston, which improved to 11-3 overall, methodically moved down the field and into Eagles territory before Flanders hit for 23 yards on an option to get inside the red zone. Two plays later, Bell got the Eastern defense to bite on a fake handoff to Flanders. Bell kept the ball and found his way into the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown.
“We were clicking on all cylinders offensively and playing really well defensively,” Fritz said. “When teams don’t have a very long time to work against the triple option, it’s tough to defend. When you work on it, the speed comes at them pretty quick and you have to adjust to the speed of the game. I thought they played us well a few times, but we just got them out on the perimeter and outran them a few times. I thought it was a good job by (offensive coordinator Doug) Ruse with the play calling.”
Late in the first quarter, the Eagles were looking to get some momentum in order pull the game even.
On the first play of Eastern’s third offensive series, Shaw jumped a route and picked off a Padron pass. The senior from Converse Judson used some key blocks to get to the end zone and double the Bearkats’ lead to 14-0.
The Eagles got inside Sam Houston’s 20-yard line for the first time in the early stages of the second quarter. After forcing two incompletions, the Bearkats kept the Eagles from getting a first down, holding Padron to just a 6-yard gain.
The Eagles couldn’t capitalize as kicker Jimmy Pavel missed a 32-yard field goal wide left.
Sam Houston responded soon after as Bell broke through the defense on an option keeper and sprinted up the sideline, pulling past defenders for a 72-yard score.
That gave Sam Houston a 21-point lead and as much momentum as the Bearkats could ask for.
The Kats weren’t done, though. They closed out the half with two more scores on a 15-yard option by sophomore running back Keshawn Hill and a 6-yard score by Richard Sincere out of the wild Bearkat.
For the second straight season, Sam Houston will meet North Dakota State in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game, which will be played at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco on Jan. 5.
This will be the first time since 1993 that the FCS title game (Youngstown vs. Marshall) will feature a rematch from the previous season.
Marshall won the first matchup 31-28, but Youngstown State won the rematch 17-5.