Bearkat fans agree that Sam Houston’s 2011 14-0 run to the NCAA Division I Football National Championship game was incredible.
But few can argue that the 2012 team’s road back to Frisco for a rematch with defending national champion and No. 1 North Dakota State is even more amazing.
After a heart-breaking loss at Central Arkansas where the Bears scored 14 points in the final five minutes to upset the defending Southland Conference champion 24-20, the Kats stood 1-2 and on the brink of having the team’s repeat playoff hopes dashed all together.
“The loss at Central Arkansas was the turning point in our season,” senior safety and two-time Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year Darnell Taylor said. “We were flat that day and didn’t play our best. The loss told us we could be beaten. We knew we had to run the table in conference play just to have a chance to get back in the playoffs.”
The team responded, however. Since the UCA loss in Conway, Sam Houston has gone 10-1 with the only loss to Football Bowl Subdivision No. 8 and Cotton Bowl bound Texas A&M. Seven of those 10 victories came on the road.
Sam Houston’s 45-42 victory over NCAA Football Championships No. 2 seed Eastern Washington last Saturday put the Bearkats back in the finals against the only team to defeat Sam Houston in 2011, the North Dakota State Bison.
The finals will take place Saturday, Jan. 5, at 12 noon at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco before a nationwide TV audience on ESPN2.
The game will mark only the fourth time in FCS history that the same teams have met in the championship game in consecutive years.
“It feels great to be going back to Frisco, but it won’t feel that good until we get the job done in the national championship,” Sam Houston senior safety Robert Shaw said.
All season long, the team’s slogan has been “Finish.” Their goal not only has been to return to Frisco but to walk off the field after the championship game as winners.
Just as in last year’s semifinal victory over Montana, the Eastern Washington game came down to the need to pick up one more first down to clinch the victory.
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 who 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.
“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.”
To reach the finals, Sam Houston State had to defeat each of the three teams that ended the regular season as tri-champions in what many experts believe to be the toughest FCS conference in the nation, the Big Sky.
The Bearkats knocked off Cal Poly in the second round and then topped Montana State in Bozeman in the quarterfinals before the win over Eastern Washington. Now Sam Houston faces the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, North Dakota State.
“This gives us a chance to prove to everybody that we’re the best in the country,” Sam Houston senior wide receiver Trey Diller said. “All year long, everybody’s been into practice, everybody’s been on time, focused in meetings, focused in practice. You can tell everybody wants it.”
North Dakota State enters the game with 13-1 record while the Bearkats stand 11-3.
“We’ve just got to go up to Frisco and play hard,” Flanders. “It’s another road trip, another business trip. We’ve done a tremendous job with our focus. We’re just one game away from being where we were last year.”
Traveling and winning big is nothing new to these Bearkats. During the past two seasons, the Kats have won an impressive 10 games out of 14 trips away from Bowers Stadium. During that span, the only losses were to North Dakota State in last January’s FCS national championship game, a 24-20 loss to Central Arkansas on the Bears’ purple-and-gray colored turf as well as bowl-bound Baylor and Texas A&M.
“That’s one thing that coach (Willie Fritz) preaches all the time, that we’ve got to win on the road if we want to be a great team,” defensive lineman J. T. Cleveland said. “That’s what we’ve been striving to do this year. We want to be road warriors.”