Stephen F. Austin’s offense tallied more rushing yards, passing yards and first downs during the 88th Battle of the Piney Woods.
Yet where Sam Houston State was perfect, SFA committed two crucial interceptions for the Bearkats to spark fourth quarter momentum, and claim their third consecutive win over the Lumberjacks with a 56-49 shootout.
Following a 38-yard touchdown pass from Bearkat senior quarterback Brian Bell to receiver Torrance Williams, SHSU safety Chris Grett jarred a fumble from SFA running back Gus Johnson recovered at the Lumberjack 42-yard line by defensive back Michael Wade. Three snaps later – with an injured Timothy Flanders on the sideline — running back Keshawn Hill ripped through the defensive line for a 31-yard touchdown run for a two-touchdown lead in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.
SFA quarterback Brady Attaway then took his next four snaps to watch SHSU run away with a 28-point lead during three-and-a-half minutes of possession from four turnovers.
“Once you get one it starts rolling downhill from there,” SHSU cornerback DeAntrey Loche said. “We kept pushing to get takeaways and keep our offense on the field.”
Through the first three quarters at Reliant Stadium, Brady Attaway picked apart SHSU’s secondary, making routine habits splitting Wade and Grett with receiver Tyler Boyd filling the seams. However, SFA’s pass heavy playbook commenced the matchup on the ground with Johnson tallying 72 yards in the first quarter.
“That was definitely a trend breaker for them,” SHSU linebacker Tanner Brock said. “That’s not what they usually do. It was a little bit of a surprise, but I think we responded well to it.”
Alignment adjustments on the Bearkats’ front seven regrouped and held Johnson to a mere 46 yards combined through the third quarter. Hill steered the Bearkats running scheme with 72 rushing yards with 68 insurance yards from Flanders, however it was the relationship between Bell and Williams that spotlighted the offense.
Bell – who has assumed SHSU’s consistent figure on offense – threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns, hitting Williams for 175 yards and a touchdown Saturday night. Bell said the late turnovers forced by the Bearkats’ defense kick started the offense for 28 uncontested points.
“It just gives us really good confidence and good field position,” Bell said. “We just got to take advantage of every single one of their turnovers.”
The Lumberjacks maintained leverage over SHSU’s defensive front through the first half. Attaway coupled with Johnson for a combined 376 yards in the opening 30 minutes. For the second consecutive matchup against the Bearkats, Attaway totaled over 500-yards in the air for 5 or more touchdowns, a statistic SHSU head coach Willie Fritz isn’t fond of.
SFA head coach J.C. Harper said Johnson’s performance against SHSU’s defense rates him as “the best running back in the league.”
“Nothing to take away from Flanders, he’s a great player too,” Harper said. “What I’ve seen out of [Johnson] we were going to give him the ball.”
Johnson recorded 136 yards compared to Flanders 68, however both backs tallied a touchdown in their outing.
Attaway responded to SHSU’s 28 uncontested points with 21 points of his own. Attaway found receivers Mike Brooks and Boyd for two 55 plus yard completions for 14 points in the final eight-and-a-half minutes of the second half.
“We had the door shut,” Fritz said. “We shouldn’t have got into that situation.”
SFA attempted an onside kick trailing SHSU 56-49 but was called offside despite the Bearkats fielding the kick at their 39-yard line with 1:20 left on the clock to seal the win.
“They battled hard, we battled hard,” Harper said. “It was the Battle of the Piney Woods.”