The No. 6 Sam Houston State Bearkats hosted the Kennesaw State Owls under the lights at Bowers Stadium Saturday night and defeated the third-year program 34-27 to advance to the FCS semifinals.
“What a great opponent,” head coach K.C. Keeler said. “They gave us everything and more.”
SHSU received the opening kickoff, but had trouble moving the ball downfield when a third down sack by senior defensive lineman Tonarius Portress forced a three-and-out.
A fair catch interference penalty gave the Owls’ offense the ball at the SHSU 43-yard line, and KSU drew first blood with a 13-yard rushing touchdown by junior running back Darnell Holland to take a 7-0 lead with 11:15 left in the opening quarter.
The Kats’ offense answered immediately when a 1:15 drive was capped off by a 61-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe to sophomore wide receiver Nathan Stewart to tie the game 7-7 with 10:00 to go in the first quarter.
Win or lose, this was the seniors’ last game at Bowers Stadium. Briscoe was among those taking the field in Huntsville for the final time.
“It was pretty incredible,” Briscoe said. “I love this place. I love playing in front of our fans. This place is very special to me.”
The Bearkats capitalized following a missed field goal by KSU as they marched down the field and took the lead when Briscoe connected with senior wide receiver Yedidiah Louis for a 16-yard touchdown that put SHSU on top 14-7 with 3:10 left to play in the first quarter.
The Kats got the ball back at the KSU 48-yard line after a fourth down stop on the first play of the second quarter forced a turnover on downs. A field goal by junior kicker Tre Hohnstein tacked on three points to extend SHSU’s lead to 17-7 with 11:34 to play in the first half.
A facemask penalty on KSU set up a first down and goal that led to a one yard touchdown run by senior running back Corey Avery to push the Kats lead to 24-7 with 5:45 left in the second quarter.
With three seconds to go in the half, KSU tacked on three points with a 28-yard field goal by junior kicker Justin Thompson to make it a two-possession game as SHSU took a 24-10 lead into the locker room at halftime.
KSU received the second half kick but turned the ball over when freshman corner Zyon McCollum came up with an interception in the middle of the field. The Kats were unable to capitalize on the turnover, however, and KSU pulled within 11 after a 34-yard field goal made it 24-13 with 4:39 remaining in the third quarter.
“I thought our defense did a really good job,” Keeler said. “When they threw a couple things at us and we hadn’t seen it before we dealt with it.”
SHSU returned the favor on the ensuing drive with a 21-yard field goal to extend the lead to 27-13 with 1:56 on the game clock.
The Owls’ offense got rolling at the start of the fourth quarter, though, as junior quarterback Chandler Burks pushed across the goal line for a 4-yard rushing touchdown to pull within seven points as SHSU clung to a 27-20 lead with 14:26 left in the game.
SHSU answered with a touchdown of its own when Briscoe hooked up with Louis for a 15-yard completion. The Bearkats held a 34-20 lead with 11:58 remaining in the fourth.
KSU marched downfield on its next offensive possession aided by a questionable facemask penalty. The nine-play, 62-yard drive burned 4:29 off the clock and ended on a 23-yard catch-and-run by sophomore running back T.J. Reed that made it 34-27 with 7:21 on the game clock.
The Kats’ offense set up shop at its own 17-yard line with 7:16 left in the contest and immediately picked up a first down on the legs of Avery. They looked to pull away with a long touchdown completion from Briscoe to Stewart, but the receiver’s incredible play was negated by another questionable flag, this time an offensive pass interference.
The Owls would end up taking over with 5:52 after an interception by sophomore defensive back Dustin Clabough, but they would turn the ball over on downs after failing on a fourth and five-play in the red zone. That stop sent the Kats offense into victory formation to finalize the 34-27 victory.
“We kind of knew what they wanted to do down in that area,” junior defensive lineman Chris Stewart said about the clutch defensive stand.
SHSU will travel to North Dakota to take on the No. 2 North Dakota State Bison in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs on Friday at 7 p.m.
“We respect [North Dakota] and marvel at what they’ve done,” Keeler said. “But we’re not intimidated. That’s just not who we are.”
The match up will be televised live on ESPN2.