CHENEY, Wash. – Apparently the road to Frisco has a fast lane, and Sam Houston State rode it halfway home before Eastern Washington even found the keys.
The Bearkats rolled up a five-touchdown lead that Eastern couldn’t overcome even with its best 30 minutes of the season, ensuring a second straight trip to the FCS championship game and leaving the Eagles holding onto a few consolation prizes they probably won’t appreciate for awhile.
“We are not into any moral victories no matter who we are playing,” an emotional Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said after a 45-42 defeat that cost the Eagles a second title game appearance in three years.
“But I told our guys in the locker room I was really, really proud of our guys to be where we were at 35-0 …their attitude coming out of halftime and to stay together.”
The Eagles did more than that in following their worst half of the season with their best, even while redshirt freshman quarterback Vernon Adams played his first meaningful minutes in almost a month. Coming off the bench, Adams threw for six touchdown passes and helped the Eagles cut a 35-0 lead to 35-28 with 13 minutes left in the game.
Along the way, Eagle wide receiver Brandon Kaufman caught nine passes for three touchdowns and 215 yards and set the FCS single-season record for receiving yards with 1,850. In three playoff games, Kaufman caught 28 balls for 600 yards and six touchdowns.
But the Bearkats, who gained 418 yards rushing and 503 overall, scored a touchdown and a field goal in the final quarter – just enough to hold off the Eagles and get a chance to avenge last year’s title-game loss to North Dakota State.
Kaufman capped an extraordinary season – and the scoring – with a 33-yard touchdown catch from Adams that made it 45-42, but Sam Houston State was able to run out the clock.
“It was obviously a tale of two halves when you look at the game,” Baldwin said. “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.”
The 11-3 Eagles had faced adversity all season, winning six of nine games decided by a touchdown or less. Double-digit holes had been surmounted all season, but nothing like the 35-point-deep trench they had fallen into against the best offense they’ve faced this year.
In 30 minutes, Sam Houston ran for 285 yards on just 31 carries, while their aggressive man-to-man defense held Eastern’s passing game to nine completions in 23 attempts.
Eastern made plenty of big plays in the first half, but couldn’t move the ball consistently. On their first possession, the Eagles picked up two first downs to the Sam Houston 40, but stalled after starting quarterback Kyle Padron was sacked twice. Sam Houston took over at its own 36 after an illegal hit by Ryan Seto on the ensuing punt.
The Bearkats needed just nine plays to march 64 yards and a touchdown on their first offensive possession. They picked up three first downs along the way, highlighted by Tim Flanders’ 23-yard run on a perfect pitch from wide receiver Richard Sincere. Two plays later, quarterback Brian Bell scampered into the end zone from the 6.
“We were clicking on all cylinders offensively …” Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz said. “When teams don’t have a very long time to work against the triple option sometimes it’s tough to defend.
“When you work on it the speed comes at them pretty quick and they have to adjust to it. They had us contained a few times; we just got out on the perimeter and outran them a few times.”
Eastern’s second offensive series was as hit-and-miss as the first. After a first-down sack, Padron hit Shaquille Hill for a 21-yard gain the Eastern 48, but punted again following a sack and a long incomplete against tight coverage.
The Eagles got the ball right back after a Sam Houston couldn’t overcome a holding penalty on first down
On first-and-10, Padron looked for Kaufman on a slant route, but strong safety Robert Shaw read the play perfectly, picked off the ball and returned it 37 yards to give Sam Houston a 14-0 lead.
“They have a good receiving corps,” Shaw said. “I say great, probably one of best we’ve seen all year. We knew they were going to make plays, but we had to overcome adversity and make bigger plays.”
It got worse. EWU kicker Jimmy Pavel missed a 32-yard field goal, and three plays later, Bell faked a pitch and scampered 72 yards to put Sam Houston ahead 21-0.
After another Eagle three-and-out, the Bearkats took advantage of a short punt to move 48 yards in eight plays, capped by Keshawn Hill’s 15-yard TD run.
Enter Adams, who threw four incompletions on his first series and was picked off to end his second. In between, the Bearkats drove 52 yards in three plays to take a 35-0 lead with almost four minutes to go before halftime.
Eastern was 0 for 7 on third-down conversions in the first half.
At that point some fans departed Roos Field, some of them not to return.
Everything changed in the second half, partly because Sam Houston played less aggressively on offense, but mostly because Adams found his rhythm, extending plays with his legs and firing downfield to receivers who’d finally been given a chance to separate from coverage.
After the Bearkats failed to gain a first down on the first series of the second half, Adams moved the Eagles 79 yards in seven plays, highlighted by a 31-yard TD pass to Greg Herd in the corner of the end zone.
“More than anything, (I told them) take it one play at a time,” Baldwin said. “I know that is cliché, but it’s true. If you read the scoreboard it can look too overwhelming, but if you focus on a play and a drive (it’s manageable). We said if we could get a score, and then another score, we can creep back into this game.”
After Eastern lineman Jakob Puglsey sacked Bell, Adams took Eastern 55 yards in six plays, hitting Kaufman for a 22-yard touchdown that made it 35-21; momentum turned completely in Eastern’s direction after Kevin Miller’s onside kick was recovered by the Eagles and Adams hit a wide-open Ashton Clark for a 43-yard TD with 16 minutes still left to play.
The comeback was almost complete after another big defensive stop and Adams’ 43-yard touchdown pass to Kaufman with 13:08 to play, but Sam Houston stalled the rally with a five-play scoring drive ending in Shane Young’s 4-yard pass from Bell with 10:49 left.