Eastern Washington nearly bridged a 35-0 halftime deficit, but fell just short in its FCS semifinal loss to Sam Houston State. The Bearkats dominated the first 30 minutes with four rushing touchdowns — two by quarterback Brian Bell and one apiece from Keshawn Hill and Richard Sincere — and a 37-yard interception return by Robert Shaw.
Sam Houston State could do no wrong in pursuit of its unofficial Big Sky Conference championship. The Bearkats’ two previous playoffs win came over Cal Poly and Montana State. But the second half was a completely different ballgame.
Beau Baldwin pulled quarterback Kyle Padron, who struggled mightily in the first half. Vernon Adams came on and threw six touchdowns to lead the comeback. Three were to All-America wide receiver Brandon Kaufman.
“Most teams would have folded shop down 35-0,” said SHSU head coach Willie Fritz, who has led the Bearkats to consecutive FCS championship games. “They have an outstanding stable of wide receivers. They throw it up, and those guys go up and it get.”
Kaufman and Ashton Clark led that stable with 350 of the Eagles’ 481 receiving yards. It was Eastern Washington’s aerial assault against against the multifaceted ground game of Sam Houston State. Tim Flanders paced the Bearkats on the rush with 231 yards. Sincere had 69 yards, and Bell rushed for 59. SHSU’s 418 rushing yards came with two starting offensive linemen injured.
“We had [different] offensive linemen playing all year, so when those two went down, it was ‘next man up,'” Flanders said. “And that’s exactly what [the reserves] did. They did a good job.”
Flanders said that the offense just couldn’t establish the same fast pace in the second half, though, which nearly produced a role reversal of the classic these two teams played in 2004.
The Bearkats trailed by 20 points in the fourth quarter in their 2004 Playoffs visit to Eastern Washington, but roared back to win 35-34.
This time around, the Eagles rolled off 28 unanswered, then pulled within three with just three minutes remaining on the final of Adams’ touchdowns. But EWU could not duplicate the improbable onside kick recovery that capped Arizona’s raucous rally in the New Mexico Bowl, earlier in the day.
SHSU is headed back to Frisco and the FCS title game, and once again, it will see North Dakota State.
The defending champion Bison successfully rallied in Friday night to top Georgia Southern in a rematch of a 2011 semifinal. Quarterback Brock Jensen rushed for the game-winning touchdown in a rocking Fargodome, bowling over Eagle defenders on his way over the goal line on fourth down.
Friday night’s semifinal was the polar opposite of Saturday’s wild contest, even though the margin of victory was the same. The Bison and Eagles were locked in a defensive tussle — fitting for the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense. Equally fitting was that the No. 1 NDSU scoring defense won it with a blocked field goal on a 50-yard attempt to tie.
North Dakota State’s defense stymied Sam Houston State a season ago to give the Bison its first Division I national championship. The Bearkats managed just six points in the 17-6 loss. This year, the more experienced SHSU offense is scoring nearly 42 points per game. NDSU surrendered over 400 yards to Georgia Southern, but the end results shows that the Bison can bend, but rarely break.