Sam Houston stops Eastern’s Frisco quest
Eagles stage amazing rally; lose 45-42 after trailing Bearkats 35-0 in first half
Eastern Washington’s Ashton Clark hauls in a third quarter Vernon Adams pass against Sam Houston defender Kenneth Jenkins. Clark’s 43-yard touchdown play helped rally the Eagles from a 35-0 halftime deficit and the score made it a 35-21 game with 1:05 to play in the quarter. Eastern would eventually fall 45-42 in a contest that sent the winner to the FCS title game Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
Another record-tying effort for touchdown passes couldn’t do it.
Neither could a second half offensive explosion that was unmatched this season, and perhaps for a long, long time.
The 35-point hole Sam Houston State University put the Eastern Washington Eagles in the first half of last Saturday’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoff semifinal game at Roos Field proved just too deep.
So following their staving off one of the most amazing rallies in FCS history, the visiting Bearkats scored a wild 45-42 win over the Eagles and will get their rematch in the national title game in Frisco, Texas Jan. 5 versus North Dakota State.
“It was obviously a tale of two halves when you look at the game,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said.
Eastern stumbled early, and often in allowing Sam Houston to build a 35-0 lead in the first half. But with back-up quarterback Vernon Adams summoned from the sidelines to replace struggling starter Kyle Padron, the redshirt freshman tossed four touchdown passes in a span of 16 minutes, 52 seconds to close the gap to 35-28.
“More than anything, (I told them) take it one play at a time,” Baldwin said was the halftime message that tried to keep his players engaged. “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).”
The Eagles obviously bought in, as they have numerous times this season when they either fought back or fought off the opposition and won six games by less than a touchdown.
For his effort, Adams equaled the six TD record Padron tied Dec. 8 in Eastern’s 51-35 quarter-final win over Illinois State. Three of his touchdown tosses went to Brandon Kaufman whose nine catches and 215 yards helped the junior from Denver break the FCS record for single season receiving yards. He finished the season with 93 receptions for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns to break the record of 1,712 previously held by Eddie Conti of Delaware in 1998.
Adams finished the game 14-of-26 for 364 yards and two interceptions.
Eastern’s Greg Herd opened the scoring with a 31-yard TD pass from Adams with 10:29 left in the third quarter. Kaufman would then shake off his subpar first half – just two catches for 11 yards – and have his two touchdown grabs, sandwiched around an Ashton Clark score rally Eastern to within a touchdown. Clark, a junior, ended with five catches for 135 yards.
Kaufman’s first score for 22 yards and Clark’s TD came just 57 second apart following a gutsy onsides kick that gave the ball back to the Eagles on their own 46 with 2:02 remaining in the third. After two incomplete passes, Adams hit Clark for a 43-yard strike that closed it to 35-21 with 1:05 left in the third.
Sam Houston’s next drive lasted just four plays and resulted in a punt that gave the Eagles back the ball on their own 22. Adams passes of 29 yards to Clark and then Kaufman wrestled the ball away from Dax Swanson in a diving battle into the end zone to make it 35-28 just 1:52 into the fourth.
“Once it was playoff time, I wanted to give everything back to this team,” Kaufman said of his postseason effort that has seen him haul in 28 receptions for 580 yards and six touchdowns.
In the end the Bearkats’ 10-point fourth quarter, and getting a pair of crucial late third-down conversions gave them just enough of an edge to improve their record to 11-3. They got a Shane Young touchdown to push the lead back to 42-28 with 10:49 remaining. With a 60-yard catch and run along the way by Kaufman, Eastern closed it back to a touchdown 1:01 later with a 7-yard Nicholas Edwards grab at the 9:48 mark.
An Antonio Miguel 42-yard field goal gave the Texas visitors a 45-35 lead with 5:33 to go. Eastern got the ball back but Adams’ first pass was intercepted by Swanson.
After a SHSU three and out, Adams recovered from his earlier miscue to direct a two-play, 52-yard drive using just 25 second and culminated by Kaufman’s third TD catch, this one for 33 yards ended the scoring with 3:04 left.
The Eagles tried a second onsides kick but the Bearkats recovered on the Eastern 44 and ran out the clock with three key third down conversions in the final 3:04.
Sam Houston raced to their big lead on a mesmerizing triple-option that had Eastern’s defense on its heels most of the half. Quarterback Brian Bell had two of those scores, including a 72-yard run that gave the Bearkats a 21-0 lead with 12:56 to play in the second quarter.
That score followed Robert Shaw’s 27-yard interception return at the 3:08 mark quickly made it 14-0. Keeshawn Hill and Richard Sincere scored on runs 2:56 apart in the second quarter to close out the first half scoring. While he didn’t score, Tim Flanders did a lot of the work to put Sam Houston in position to do so with his 34-carry, 231-yard rushing effort.
“They just operated really well, they have averaged 41 points a game all year,” Baldwin said. “They are a great offense – I give them credit. They have great players, they run their system really well.”
Eastern’s Jimmy Pavel missed a 32-yard field goal try that would have cut the Bearkats’ lead to 14-3 early in the second quarter.
Eastern also finished the season 11-3, seeing their five-game win streak end and their 2012 Roos Field unblemished record fall as well at 7-1. The SHSU victory completed a sweep of the Big Sky for the Bearkats who last week beat Montana State 34-16 after opening the playoffs with an 18-16 victory over Cal Poly.
Senior Zach Johnson led the Eagles with 12 tackles, while juniors Allen Brown and Ronnie Hamlin each had nine stops.
The Eagles finished with 523 yards of total offense and Sam Houston 503. Eastern’s total included 481 passing yards while the Bearkats had 459 of their yards on the ground. In the second half, Eastern had a 360-250 advantage.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.