Cheney, WA – Whew.
If you're connected with the Sam Houston State football program, that's the feeling Saturday night despite the Bearkats returning to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game.
The unseeded Southland Conference co-champion survived a nearly historic collapse against second-seeded Eastern Washinghton, 45-42, in the national semifinals, completing a unique playoff sweep of the tri-champions from the Big Sky Conference.
The Bearkats (11-3), whose 35-0 halftime lead was nearly whittled all the way down, set up a championship game rematch against top-seeded North Dakota State (13-1) on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas. NDSU won last season's title game, 17-6.
North Dakota State can breath a little easier that it's a Missouri Valley Football Conference member. Before Sam Houston State beat Big Sky tri-champion Eastern Washington, it eliminated the other two champions, Cal Poly and Montana State, from the playoffs.
Coach Willie Fritz's Bearkats reached the title game again because they built the big halftime cushion. The second half seemed like it would be anticlimactic, but it wasn't when Eastern Washington redshirt freshman quarterback Vernon Adams, in relief of starter Kyle Padron, threw for six touchdowns.
His final one, and the third one to Brandon Kaufman - a 33-yarder with 3:04 left in the fourth quarter - pulled Eastern Washington within 45-42.
The Eagles followed with an onside kick, but Trey Diller recovered it for Sam Houston State. From there, the Bearkats ran the ball eight times, picking up two first downs, to end the game.
Sam Houston State running back Timothy Flanders didn't find the end zone in the scoreathon, but the junior All-America finished with 231 yards on 34 carries. The Bearkats rushed for 418 yards, including 292 in the first half.
Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin talked at halftime about being an optimist, but few could have forseen his team's comeback from a 35-0 deficit.
"We are not into any moral victories no matter who we are playing," Baldwin said. "I told our guys in the locker room I was really, really proud of our guys to be where we were at 35-0, and to not just fight back with what you saw on the field, but to fight back with their attitude in the locker room, and their attitude coming out of halftime and to stay together. That allowed us to have an opportunity to still have a shot to win a game when no one expected us to. I am very proud of that."
After the Eagles (11-3) pulled within 42-35 on Adams' 7-yard touchdown pass to Nicholas Edwards with 9:48 left, the Bearkats probably thought they had enough breathing room again when Miguel Antonio kicked a 42-yard field goal to make it 45-35 with 5:33 left.
The points proved to be the winning margin while Sam Houston State barely avoided FCS infamy. The host Eagles nearly matched the largest second-half comeback ever for a win - Nevada's rally from 35 points down to beat Weber State, 55-49, on Nov. 2, 1991.
In the first half, Sam Houston State's big-play ability was too much for Eastern Washington, which entered the game with five straight wins and a 7-0 record at home on its red field. But "The Inferno" was just a cold unwelcoming turf for the Eagles during the first-half blitzkrieg.
Quarterback Brian Bell capped the Bearkats' opening drive with a 6-yard touchdown run with 7:34 left in the first quarter
Robert Shaw then scored on a 37-yard interception return of a Padron pass and Sam Houston State pushed its lead to 14-0 with 3:08 left in the quarter.
Bell scored on 72-yard touchdown early in the second quarter, and then the lead swelled to 35-0 when Keshawn Hill and Richard Sincere scored on runs. Shaw's second interception of the game - this time off Adams - came in Sam Houston State's end zone and denied Eastern Washington a touchdown with 3:06 left.
Three of Adams' touchdown passes came in the third quarter - a 21-yarder to Greg Herd on the Eagles' first drive, a 22-yarder to Kaufman which gave him the FCS single-season record for receiving yards and, following a recovered onside kick, a 43-yarder to Ashton Cook.
Kaufman then caught a 43-yard touchdown by wrestling a long pass away from Sam Houston State cornerback Dax Swanson in the Bearkats' end zone, making it 35-28 with 13:03 left in the fourth quarter.
Flanders fueled Sam Houston State's ensuing drive with a 49-yard rush and Bell capped it with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Shane Young, making it 42-28 with 10:49 left.
Swanson picked off Adams with 5:20 left in the game for his 14th career interception, a new school record. Ronnie Choate first set the Sam Houston career record with 13 picks from 1955-59.
Adams completed 14-of-26 pass attempts for 364 yards. Padron threw for 117 yards, giving Eastern Washington 481 yards through the air.
Kaufman finished with nine receptions for 216 yards. His 1,851 receiving yards surpassed the previous FCS single-season record of 1,712 yards set by Delaware's Eddie Conti in 1998.
Sam Houston State was the preseason No. 1 and is 11-1 against FCS teams, losing only to Southland co-champion Central Arkansas as well as FBS members Baylor and Texas A&M.
The Sam Houston State-North Dakota State game will mark the third meeting since the championships began in 1978 that the same opponents have met in the final in back-to-back years. Marshall and Youngstown State battled in both the 1991 and 1992 championship games before Marshall and Montana faced off in both the 1995 and 1996 finals.
North Dakota State 23, Georgia Southern 20
Fargo, ND (Sports Network) - With a trip to the FCS national championship game on the line and a chance to make history for both schools, it came down to two critical plays.
They were plays which would ultimately determine North Dakota State's and Georgia Southern's seasons.
With 3:10 left in regulation and Georgia Southern leading by four points, defending national champion North Dakota State faced a 4th-and-3 from the Eagles' 5-yard line.
Coach Craig Bohl turned to who else but junior signal-caller Brock Jensen, who took a quarterback sneak in for a touchdown with 3:05 remaining, giving the Bison a 23-20 lead and eventually, the game-winning points Friday night at the Fargodome.
"I am little bit out of words," Bohl said. "That's probably one of the most draining games I've ever been a part of."
North Dakota State (13-1) advanced to its second straight national title game appearance, thanks to Jensen's late-game touchdown and a Carlton Littlejohn blocked 50-yard field goal with 34 seconds left, attempted by Georgia Southern place-kicker Drew Ruggles, who is also a member of the Eagles' soccer team.
The Bison make the trip back to Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 5, to face Sam Houston State (11-3) in a rematch of last season's FCS national championship game. NDSU was a 17-6 winner.
As for the quarterback who has now led the Bison to a 27-2 record over the last two years, Jensen relished the opportunity.
"Those are the type of situations you live for as a competitor of the game," Jensen said. "We called it, there was a hole there for me, and I just tried to hit it as hard as I could."
Jensen only threw for 76 yards and completed nine passes, but had 58 rushing yards and the game-changing touchdown.
In fact, the Bison were outgained 430 yards to 276, including 271-200 in rushing yards, but once again, the team found ways to win the game.
Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon accounted for 259 yards of offense, including 168 rushing yards and one touchdown and 98 passing yards and one touchdown, but the Eagles (10-4) and third-year coach Jeff Monken fell in the FCS semifinals for the third straight year. It was also the second straight year their season ended against NDSU.
Georgia Southern struck first, proving from the get-go that it wouldn't miss any opportunities for points, especially after totaling just 17 in the team's last two trips to the semifinals.
On a 4th-and-1 at the Bison 1-yard line, J.J. Wilcox, an all-conference safety, rushed for a touchdown on his first carry of the season, capping off a 14-play, 79-yard opening drive. The extra point, however, was blocked.
It was the first offensive touchdown allowed by the Bison in three playoff contests and the first rushing touchdown allowed since Nov. 17.
The Bison responded with their own scoring drive as running back John Crockett's 1-yard touchdown run tied the game at 6-6. The extra point was blocked as well by defensive tackle Brent Russell - his second of the year - just before the end of the first quarter.
Crockett finished with 60 rushing yards and one touchdown.
In the second quarter, McKinnon completed just his 19th pass of the season, but it was a big one as Dominique Swope hauled in the catch - just the third of his career - for 49 yards and a touchdown, and the Eagles led, 13-6.
At halftime, Georgia Southern had 190 yards of offense (113 rushing) compared to NDSU's 136 yards of offense (73 rushing). The Bison added a field goal, but trailed, 13-9.
On Georgia Southern's first drive of the second half, Christian Dudzik forced the game's first turnover as he striped and recovered the ball from McKinnon, giving the Bison the ball at their own 41-yard line.
Two plays later, running back Sam Ojuri scampered 53 yards for a touchdown, giving the Bison a 16-13 lead, their first of the contest.
With all the momentum, North Dakota State forced a 4th-and-19 at the Eagles' 6-yard line on the next possession. All of a sudden, a Jordan Champion roughing-the-kicker penalty gave the ball right back to Georgia Southern and briefly took the wind out of the Bison faithful.
"Without question, in my mind, I knew it was going to be a pivotal play," Bohl said of the penalty. "Once you get through the frustration you say, 'Hey, here's a young man trying to make a play.'"
The Eagles made the most of the golden opportunity and drove into NDSU territory, where McKinnon scored his first rushing touchdown of the game from 25 yards out, giving his team a 20-16 lead. It was his seventh straight 100- yard rushing game.
Georgia Southern, however, was hurt by errant penalties and couldn't stop North Dakota State on the 4th-and-3 late in the game, even after using two straight timeouts to prepare for the play.
"It was a great football game; we just didn't make enough plays down the stretch to win it," Monken said. "We had opportunities. We had the two foolish penalties on one drive and had a chance on fourth down and just couldn't get the stop we needed."
The Eagles finished with 13 penalties for 103 costly yards.
Swope rushed for 77 yards and the All-America Russell finished off his career with a school-record 25th sack.