Thursday night’s season opener was a battle of two high-powered offenses between Sam Houston State and Western Illinois. It felt like whoever had the ball last would win this shootout. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the Bearkats.
With the ball on the goal-line and just over 20 seconds to work with, Sam Houston State fell short of tying the Western Illinois Leathernecks in a nail-biter; leading the Bearkats to a heartbreaking loss to the Leathernecks, 35-28, in the season opener.
The Bearkats started the potential game-winning drive on their own 34 yard-line with just over three minutes left in the game. Quarterback Blake Joseph connected to wide receiver Jason Madkins three times in the drive for 37 yards, including a controversial 20-yard reception in which Madkins appeared to cross the goal-line. Much to the Bearkats’ dismay, the referees agreed that the play was dead on the goal-line, leaving Sam Houston State with 21 seconds and one inch to get into the end zone.
The sequence of plays that proceeded included two incomplete passes, an outside pitch that lost a yard, and a false start penalty, which did nothing but move the Bearkats backwards. After 59 minutes and 39 seconds of potent offense, the Bearkats were unable to get the job done.
“It was a good drive and the team fought hard, but in the end we came up short,” said quarterback Blake Joseph. “We did some good things throughout the game, but we made too many mistakes. We’ve got to do better on that. I, personally, have to do better on that. They didn’t beat us, we beat ourselves.”
Defense was the main issue for Sam Houston State. The young defensive unit allowed 554 yards on 63 plays, forced only two punts in the game, and recorded just one sack. The Leathernecks were successful on five of 11 third downs, including a crucial third and 20 that allowed them to keep the drive alive and kill precious time with a seven point lead in the fourth quarter.
The defense did have some upside though. Western Illinois, which is known for its tenacious run game, was held to just 117 yards on 37 carries. The defense also scored two touchdowns off turnovers, including a 64-yard interception return by defensive end Chris Brown and a 21-yard fumble return by safety Victor Carmichael. The weak spot for the defense was in defending the pass.
Western Illinois quarterback Matt Barr completed 18 of 26 passes for 437 yards and three touchdowns. His primary target was receiver Lito Senatus, who nabbed 11 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns.
“On film we noticed that they were a good run team, so in the game we concentrated on the run, but then they hit us over the head with all those passes,” safety Victor Carmichael said. “We just couldn’t capitalize. We had them on the ropes and we couldn’t finish. We need to learn how to close them out.”
Sam Houston State running back James Aston was the highlight of the offense, running 18 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns. In his debut at quarterback, Blake Joseph completed 16 of 27 passes for 173 yards. Joseph fumbled three times, two of which were recovered by Western Illinois. The turnovers proved to be costly and ended two potential scoring drives for the Bearkats.
Following the Bearkats’ three-and-out to begin the game, Western Illinois scored first on a seven yard run by fullback Josh Gabelmann, capping off a 78-yard drive in just over five minutes to set the score at 7-0.
The Bearkats responded with an 80-yard drive that ended with a six yard touchdown run by running back James Aston. The Bearkats built on that lead in Western Illinois’ pursuing drive with a 21-yard fumble return by Victor Carmichael for a touchdown, giving the Bearkats their first lead, 14-7.
Western Illinois then scored on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Matt Barr to tight end Matt Warner, to tie up the score 14-14 going into the half. Coming out in the second half Western Illinois again took the lead with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Barr to Senatus, giving them a 21-14 edge.
The Bearkats scored the next two touchdowns on a 10-yard run by James Aston and a 64-yard interception return by Chris Brown to regain the lead 28-21. The Bearkats did not lead again.
The Leathernecks tied the game on a 30-yard touchdown reception by Senatus, giving him his second of the game. Western Illinois then scored the final and deciding touchdown on a six yard run by running back Dre Gibbs.