The top-ranked Sam Houston State Bearkats advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs with a wild 41-36 victory over the University of Tennessee Chattanooga Mocs at Bowers Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
This game was easily the closest game the Bearkats have been in all season, as the game went down to the final possession.
“We have not been in a game like this,” head coach K.C. Keeler said. “We needed to be in a game like this. I’m very proud of my team.”
The Bearkats got off to a great start, scoring on their first two offensive drives to jump to an early 14-point lead, just 3:56 into the game. On the first drive, junior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe threw a touchdown to junior wide receiver Yedidiah Louis, who made a spectacular one handed catch to get the Bearkats first points of the game. The Bearkats second drive was more of the same. Like the first drive, Briscoe kept up his connection with Louis for another SHSU touchdown, but this time the score came on a quick slant route from six yards out to put the Kats up 14-0.
It was looking like just another day at the office for the undefeated Bearkats as junior running back Corey Avery reached the end zone on a seven-yard touchdown run to improve the Bearkat lead to 21-0 just 20 seconds into the second quarter.
After the Avery touchdown run, the Mocs’ defense stepped up and became a brick wall. The defensive line of sophomore Isaiah Mack, senior Keionta Davis and junior Taylor Reynolds stepped up their play and began dominating the Bearkat offensive line. As the defense shut things down it allowed their offense to find a rhythm as senior running back Derrick Craine found the end zone with 6:18 left in the second quarter, making it 21-7. On the ensuing drive the Mocs forced Briscoe into an interception that was returned for a touchdown by senior line backer Nakevion Leslie, closing the gap and making the score 21-14 with 5:21 left in the first half.
The Moc defense held Briscoe to a season-low 24 passing yards in the second quarter as their impact quickly turned a 21-point deficit into a one score game going into the half.
“Their defensive line did a really good job getting pressure on us,” Keeler said. “Their game plan was what their game plan was. The thing they had better than anyone else, it [Mocs’ defensive line] was the best thing we have played so far. That defensive line was exceptional.”
The Mocs’ went into halftime with momentum and they kept it coming out of halftime.
The Mocs drove right down the field and found the endzone. Junior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield found senior wide receiver Xavier Borishade for an 18-yard touchdown to tie the game 21-21. UTC’s game tying touchdown in the third quarter marked the first time the Bearkats saw a tie game in the second half this season.
After forcing SHSU to punt, the Mocs were lining up for a punt of their own on fourth down and nine from their own 30-yard line. It was one of the biggest plays of the game as UTC failed to catch the Bearkats off guard by attempting a fake punt. The failed attempt allowed the Kats to take over with only 30-yards to for a touchdown.
Briscoe and the Kats made the Mocs immediately regret their decision three plays later.
Sophomore wide receiver Davion Davis caught a 35-yard pass from Briscoe and ran down the sideline to give the Bearkats the lead. After a Moc field goal made the score 28-24, the Bearkats once again drove down with Briscoe capping off the drive with a 23-yard touchdown to Louis. The touchdown to Louis was Briscoe’s 55 of the season, which tied the 11-year-old FCS record for passing touchdowns in a single season set by Bruce Eugene of Grambling in 2005.
Even though the Bearkats led 35-24 the game was far from over.
The Bearkats allowed the Mocs drive down the field once again. After a 57-yard pass from Bennifield to senior wide receiver C.J. Board. Craine took the ball 15 yards down the sideline on the next play to give make the score 35-30. The Mocs got the ball right back and Bennifield and Craine picked up where they left off. The Mocs went down the field quickly, but were the Bearkats defense stepped up and made a stop in the red zone, forcing the Mocs to kick a field goal making the score 35-33 with just 9:42 left in the game.
The Bearkats were not able to run the ball all game, but when the Bearkats needed it most, they lined up their playmaker Louis at quarterback in the wildcat formation. Louis took the snap and ran around the Moc defense for a huge 53-yard gain, the longest play of the game for the Bearkats. Briscoe connected with freshman wide receiver Nathan Stewart on the next play for a 26-yard touchdown making the score 41-33 with 9:02 left to play.
The touchdown to Stewart made Briscoe the all-time FCS passing leader in touchdowns for a single season.
“It’s an absolute honor, God’s truly blessed me,” Briscoe said. “But none of that happens without the best receiving core in the country. I thought tonight was one of my worst nights, but the receivers just kept making plays.”
Briscoe finished the game completing 20 of 40 passes for 363 yards and five touchdowns. Louis led the Kats in receiving with 156 yards on eight receptions and three touchdowns. Avery helped the SHSU offense by adding 28 yards on the ground and a score.
The Mocs offense went back on the field and continued their high-volume rushing attack. However, once the Mocs reached the red zone they were shutdown as the Kats forced the Mocs to kick another field goal making the score 41-36.
Things heated up as both teams saw their season on the line. SHSU punted the ball back to the Mocs with just over two minutes remaining. The game was within one score and the Bearkat defense needed to make a stop in order to survive.
It didn’t look great at first for the Kats, as Bennifield and the Mocs offense were getting huge chunks of yardage on the potential game winning drive. The Mocs reached the red zone and that’s when SHSU’s defense kicked into gear. Junior defensive end P.J. Hall batted down a ball on third and 10 to force a the Mocs into one last fourth down chance.
“Basically we knew they were getting ready to pass,” Hall said. “So, I just got off the edge and when I saw him get ready to throw the ball I just put my hands up.”
The Bearkats made the much-needed stop on the ensuing fourth down to punch their ticket to the FCS Quarterfinals.
With the second round playoff victory, the Bearkats improved their overall record to 12-0. Up next, the Bearkats will travel to Harrisonburg, VA to face the fourth seeded James Madison Dukes on Friday at 6 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and will also be viewable on the WatchESPN app.