CHENEY, Wash. — A slow start to the season made a return trip to the Football Championship Subdivision championship game seem unlikely for Sam Houston State.
A slow finish to Saturday evening’s semi-final game against Eastern Washington almost derailed the Bearkats’ unlikely dream run.
Quarterback Brian Bell ran for two touchdowns and threw for another and Sam Houston State raced to a 35-0 halftime lead but barely held on to beat the second-seeded Eagles 45-42.
The Bearkats (11-3) face top-seeded and defending champion North Dakota State, which won last year’s matchup 17-16 on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
“When we were 1-2 at the beginning of the season I don’t think there were very many people that thought we were going to get back,” a relieved Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said.
The win over Eastern Washington (11-3) was the Bearkats’ third straight over a Big Sky Conference team in the playoffs this year and fifth straight in the past two years.
“I want to give a ton of credit to (Eastern Washington),” Fritz said. “Most teams would have folded shop when they were down 35-0 in the first half and kicking off to us in the second half. Those guys really did a sensational job in the second half.”
After the Bearkats dominated the first half, Eastern Washington backup quarterback Vernon Adams tied a school record with six touchdown passes in seven possessions to pull the Eagles within a field goal with 3:02 to play.
However, behind Tim Flanders, who rushed for 231 yards, Sam Houston State was able to run out the clock. The Bearkats had 503 yards of offense, 418 of which came on the ground.
“We were clearly hitting on all cylinders offensively and playing real well defensively,” Fritz said of the first half. “When a team doesn’t have a lot of time to work on the triple option it’s hard.”
Eastern had 523 yards, 481 in the air. Adams finished by completing 14 of 26 attempts for 364 yards.