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," he 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.