HOUSTON — A crowd of 24,685 roaring fans got a glimpse Saturday of what’s to come for the next three years of the Battle of the Piney Woods rivalry at Reliant Stadium.
The Southland Conference showdown between Sam Houston State (2-1 SLC, 4-3) and Stephen F. Austin (3-0, 6-1), the top two teams in the conference, ended in a 31-28 nail-biter, with the Lumberjacks narrowly evading a Bearkat comeback in the final seconds of the game.
After battling back from two 14-point deficits, SHSU made the game interesting with two chances at closing in on the Jacks’ lead with a few ticks left on the clock. The SFA defense, though shaky at times, stood tall when it mattered most and forced back-to-back turnovers on downs to end the game. With eight seconds left, the Lumberjacks lined up in the victory formation and took a knee, killing the clock and the spirits of the Bearkat faithful.
“Obviously, we didn’t start off real well,” Head Coach Willie Fritz said. “I was telling the kids in the locker room when you play a game like this, against a quality opponent, you’ve got to make plays there in the end, both as coaches and as players, and we just came up short.
“There were two or three opportunities for us, I thought, to take charge of the game and have an opportunity to win, and it just didn’t quite happen.”
One of such opportunities came within the last three minutes of the game.
Down 31-28, the Kats faced a fourth and four on their own 31. Quarterback Brian Bell hiked the ball and bobbled the snap. After getting a grip on the football, he heaved it to Richard Sincere, who had made several big plays throughout the game.
Running down the SFA sideline, Sincere had at least two steps on the pair of defenders tailing him. He dove, attempting to make a play on the ball, and watched as it sailed inches away from his outstretched fingers, ending the drive with an incomplete pass. Had Bell put a little less push in the pass, Sincere could have easily walked to the endzone, giving SHSU its first lead of the game.
“We got a little confusion at the beginning, but we got everything straightened out,” said Bell, who finished with 177 yards, including 85 yards on 12-16 passing in the fourth quarter. “I picked up the snap and went with the first thing I saw, and I made a bad throw. That’s the way it goes sometimes, I guess.”
The conference’s most prolific rushing attack was a key factor in the offense.
Tim Flanders was a force again, as he extended his 100-yard rushing streak to six games with 100 yards on 23 carries and a pair of scores.
Sincere showed versatility and produced in almost every facet of the offense. He collected 107 total yards and a touchdown in the game.
While the offense took a while to warm up, the defense was the biggest problem area early on in Saturday’s game.
SFA’s Jeremy Moses completed 20 of 32 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone. The defense tightened in the second half, limiting Moses to 104 yards and another touchdown, but getting behind in the opening period burdened the team in the long run.
“We came out and the defense looked a little shell-shocked,” SHSU linebacker Kash David said. “They weren’t doing anything that we didn’t think they were going to do. We just got together as a defense and said, ‘Hey, we’re better than these guys and we’ve got to show it.’ Sure enough, everybody bought in and it worked. It was just too little, too late.”
The Kats’ first points came in the second quarter on a 32-yard run by Sincere, made possible by a converted fake punt pass by Bryan Randolph imitating Matt Foster, on fourth and six that extended the drive.
SHSU’s special teams continued the trick plays in the ensuing play. Eric Fieilo recovered an onside kick, giving the ball back to the Bearkats. Flanders broke a 45-yard touchdown run to cap the drive, tying the game at 14.
“We got down, and we had to make something happen,” Fritz said. “At that point, we weren’t playing real well defensively. We wanted to keep their offense off the field… it really provided a spark for us early in the ball game.”
SFA responded with two more touchdown passes that carried over to the third quarter. Down 28-14, SHSU fought back once again.
Flanders ran for another touchdown, and D.J. Morrow pulled in a seven-yard pass from Bell to give the Kats 28 points. The Jack’s 34-yard field goal in between SHSU scores proved to be the difference in the game. Nevertheless, the Bearkats showed a lot of character by never giving up.
“The kids believe in what we’re doing,” Fritz said. “We were playing to win the game, not to come close, and that’s how you’ve got to play against a team like SFA. I didn’t expect any less of our guys.”
SHSU’s next game is at Northwestern State, where the Kats will go for their third win in conference and fifth overall.