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Bearkats keep chugging
Get ready for Sam Houston State-Southeastern Louisiana II.
Like they’ve done during the playoffs over the previous two seasons, the Bearkats made short work of Southern Utah from the Big Sky Conference on Saturday afternoon in the first-round Football Championship Subdivision playoff game.
After giving up the first 10 points, the Kats went on a tear and scored 30 straight points, thanks in large part to running backs Timothy Flanders and Keshawn Hill who both rushed for more than 100 yards. That was more than enough for Sam Houston State to blast Southern Utah 51-20.
“Offensive line, they did a very good job. We put a couple of new schemes in and our play-calling was good,” Flanders said.
Saturday’s victory sets up another meeting with Southland Conference outright champ Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday night in Hammond, La. The two squads met on Nov. 16 with the Lions coming out on top 34-21.
Early in Saturday’s contest in Huntsville, not much was going the Bearkats’ way. Southern Utah found success moving the ball, while Sam Houston State (9-4 overall) was struggling just to pick up a first down.
The Thunderbirds took advantage of good field position early in the first quarter. Southern Utah (8-5) scored first when kicker Colton Cook drilled a 42-yard field goal through the uprights and quarterback Aaron Cantu hit a wide-open Anthony Norris down the left sideline for a 38-yard touchdown to put the Thunderbirds up 10-0 late in the first quarter.
“The quick passes were working. They were playing very soft coverage, so we were taking what they were giving us,” Cantu said. “That was a great call with the play-action on third-and-1 to get that wide-open touchdown.”
Not surprised and unfazed by the 10-point deficit, the Bearkats responded in a big way and suddenly seized control and never looked back.
In Southern Utah territory for the first time after going three-and-out in its first three possessions, Sam Houston found the end zone for the first of several touchdowns on the day.
Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell hit sophomore receiver Chance Nelson down the seam. Nelson then shirked off a pair of would-be tackles and broke through for a 32-yard score late in the first quarter.
The Kats took command in the second. Sam Houston State scored on a 3-yard run by Hill, then again on a 1-yard TD by Bell to jump out to a 20-10 advantage.
“I don’t think we changed anything,” Flanders said. “We were just finishing blocks. We were doing the little things right. As you could tell when we started doing that, we were putting points up on the board.”
Knowing they’d receive the ball to open the second half, the Thunderbirds tried to get some momentum going into the break. Southern Utah had the ball on the Sam Houston 48 and faced fourth-and-6.
The Thunderbirds went for it, but fell short as Cantu’s pass down the field to receiver Easton Pederson fell incomplete.
“All year we’ve had one of the top defenses in the country and I felt that was as close as we were going to get. We had to get our run defense fixed and we had to score,” Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said. “I thought we had an opportunity and I did not think that they would be able to drive the length of the field in 22 seconds.
“Taking all those things into consideration, I thought the best chance to get on the board and go in with some momentum was to go for it on fourth down.
“I think Sam Houston did a nice job of taking away the first and second read,” Lamb added. “At that point, the pass rush was impending and quarterback just didn’t have much vision and looked to burn the ball down the field.”
With good field position, the Bearkats capitalized in the final 17 seconds of the half.
Bell connected on a 14-yard pass to Nelson, then hit a 31-yarder to receiver Gerald Thomas to put Sam Houston State inside the 10-yard line. The Kats thought they’d completed a touchdown pass to Shyon Motlagh, but the original call of an incompletion stood after an instant replay review.
As a result, the Kats cushioned their lead with a 24-yard field goal from Luc Swimberghe as the half expired to take a 23-10 lead into the break.
It was much of the same in the second half.
The Bearkats defense forced the Thunderbirds to stall and came up with another stop on fourth down.
“To be honest, I think we met that challenge,” said Kats defensive end Andrew Weaver of head coach Willie Fritz’s call to play more physically. “We had good preparation at practice. The coaching staff, they did a great job of preparing us and we met that challenge.”
Again with good field position at the 40, the Kats drove down the field, capping the drive on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Bell to tight end Ragan Henderson.
Late in the third, Southern Utah made a game of it again.
Following a 38-yard field goal by Cook, the Thunderbirds recovered a fumble as Bell’s pass went backward as he was being sacked. Defensive tackle Robert Torgerson scooped up the ball and took it 39 yards for a score to pull Southern Utah back to within 30-20 with 4:46 to go in the third.
“I’ve got to give credit to (defensive end) James Cowser. He’s the one who started that play,” Torgerson said. “He had the sack there and forced the quarterback to throw the pass behind the line. I just picked it up — I noticed the whistle hadn’t been blown — and I took off. There were some key blocks there with James getting up and running with me and (Miles) Killebrew came in and threw another block, which allowed me to get into the end zone.”
Sam Houston State regrouped and pulled away.
The Bearkats drove down the field, following the Southern Utah defensive touchdown, and cut through the Thunderbirds’ defensive front for big runs. Flanders capped the drive with a leaping 2-yard touchdown to give the Kats another 17-point lead.
Sam Houston State put the game away with another 1-yard score by Flanders and a 2-yard TD by Hill.
“We did a good job of responding to adversity when the offense had a turnover and that defense playing well and vice versa,” Fritz said. “Especially that time when we had the fumble and it was returned for a touchdown, we went right back down the field and scored to take it from a 10-point advantage to 17 points and kind of put us back in the driver’s seat again.
“That’s what you’ve got to do. If you have adversity, you’ve got to respond whether it’s kicking game, offense or defense, whoever’s out there on the field.”
The Bearkats and the Lions will square off for a second time this season, but will be playing for bigger stakes with a quarterfinal spot in the FCS playoffs on the line. Kickoff Saturday is set for 7 p.m.
“We’re excited about advancing. We’re moving on and we’re going over to Southeastern Louisiana to play them again over there,” Fritz said. “It’s a good opportunity for us.”
By Gene Schallenberg, HUNTSVILLE ITEM