By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
HUNTSVILLE, TX. — Tim Flanders was the main man when Sam Houston State built a 21-0 lead in the first quarter of its NCAA Division I Football Championship semifinal game Friday night against Montana at Bowers Stadium.
And Flanders was there again at the end when the Bearkats needed him to hang on to a 31-28 victory that vaulted SHSU into its first national title game in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Flanders rushed for a school-record 276 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown, but it was his 22-yard scamper on a fourth-and-one play from the Bearkat 48 in the final two minutes that clinched the victory for Sam Houston State.
The top-seeded Bearkats (14-0) will advance to the NCAA Division I Football Championship game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, TX. SHSU is the first Southland Conference team to reach the title game since McNeese State made it in 2002.
“I don’t really think it’s set in yet, but that’s what we’ve dreamed of since Day 1,” Bearkat quarterback Brian Bell said. “We’re going there (to compete) for the national championship and it’s the best feeling in the world.”
The other team to make the championship game will be decided on Saturday afternoon when No. 3 Georgia Southern travels to Fargo, N.D. to meet North Dakota State in the second semifinal.
Montana, making its third semifinal appearance in the past four years, had its nine-game winning streak snapped and ended the season at 11-3. The Grizzlies had been national runner-ups in 2008 and 2009 before missing the playoffs for the first time in 18 years last season.
Sam Houston State avenged a semifinal loss to Montana in 2004. The Grizzlies won that game, 34-13, in Missoula, MT., but found things more difficult playing in SHSU’s home.
After forcing a three and out from Montana on the first possession of the game, the Bearkats raced 57 yards in seven plays to take a 7-0 lead with 10:36 left on an 11-yard TD dash by Bell (10-of-14 passing, 113 yards, two TDs, nine carries for 25 yards rushing).
Montana drove into SHSU territory on its next series, but Brody McKnight’s school-record streak of 16 consecutive field goals was snapped when his 48-yard kick into a strong wind was blown wide right and well short.
Things got worse for the Grizzlies on the very next play when Flanders broke a tackle a few yards upfield and sped 69 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0.
When Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson fumbled and SHSU’s Gary Lorance recovered at the Grizzly 41 on the next drive, it looked like the Bearkats might deliver an early knockout.
Bell’s 20-yard scoring strike to Grant Merritt made it 21-0 with 1:42 left in the first period.
From that high-water mark, the Bearkats seemed on the top of the world. But most of the next three quarters belonged to Montana.
Johnson (21-of-32, 277 yards passing) got the Grizzlies on the board with a 30-yard scoring aerial to Jabin Sambrano early in the second period, but Flanders moved SHSU back into scoring position and Bell matched the score with a 27-yard TD pass to Trey Diller to move the Bearkats to a 28-7 advantage.
Sam Houston State might have scored again before the first half ended, but Montana linebacker Caleb McSurdy gave the Grizzlies a bolt of momentum when he picked off a Bell pass and romped 60 yards for a stunning touchdown that made it 28-14 with a minute left in the second period.
Montana carried that momentum into the second half, with the Grizzly defense shutting down the Bearkats’ option attack and Montana’s offense finally coming to life.
The Bearkat defense forced a turnover that provided the winning margin early in the third quarter when Eric Fiello stripped Johnson of the ball and recovered it at the Montana 8 to set up a 25-yard field goal from Eric Alaniz.
But the fact that the Grizzly defense limited SHSU to three points gave them even more momentum.
Montana responded with perhaps its best drive of the night, going 61 yards in 10 plays to score on Jordan Canada’s three-yard smash. With 3:36 left in the third stanza, it was now 31-21 and the Bearkats were suddenly feeling the heat.
That heat became a full-fledged meltdown when Johnson (11 carries, 64 yards) darted 54 yards for a score at the 11:26 mark of the fourth quarter to pull Montana within three points at 31-28.
The Grizzly defense held Sam Houston State without a first down to give their offense the ball again and Montana moved the ball to the Bearkat 45 before the drive stalled and McKnight punted the ball to the SHSU 25 with six minutes remaining on the clock.
But the Bearkats, who had managed only two first downs to that point in the second half, put the game on Flanders’ shoulders and 11 plays later the game was over.
No play was more important than Flanders’ rush on fourth and one from the Bearkat 48. With most observers expecting Sam Houston State to punt, Bell took the snap and handed to Flanders.
Flanders blew through the line for 22 yards and picked up another first down a couple of plays later to allow SHSU to run out the rest of the clock.
“That was a gutsy call, no doubt,” Montana coach Robin Pflugrad said. “The call was good, and we were a little bit out of place.”
For the Bearkats, a win in nearby Frisco, Texas would not only lead to their first-ever National Championship — it would additionally lead to the Bearkats’ first undefeated season since 1956, when head coach “Red” Pierce led Sam Houston State to a 10-0 record, a Lone Star Conference championship and a win in the Refrigerator Bowl over Middle Tennessee State.
“This was for everyone who’s involved in this program,” Bell said. “If you’ve had something to do with Sam Houston State, this one’s for you.”