By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The memories of a 20-point, fourth-quarter comeback that Sam Houston State had pulled against Eastern Washington in a 2004 NCAA Division I Football Championship quarterfinal game had long since faded at what was when called Woodward Field.
But on Saturday on the three-year-old Tabasco-red turf of the rechristened Roos Field, No. 2 seeded Eastern Washington needed an even bigger miracle than that, trailing 35-0 at halftime in a Football Championship Subdivision semifinal against those same Bearkats.
This time, however, there were no blocked field goals in the final minutes by the trailing team and a needed defensive stop didn't materialize for EWU as Sam Houston State hung on for a wild, 45-42 victory.
SHSU (11-3) will meet top-ranked and defending national champion North Dakota State on Jan. 5 in Frisco, TX. in a rematch of last season's national title tilt.
It is just the fourth time there has been a rematch in back-to-back years, joining Youngstown State and Marshall (1991-93) and Montana and Marshall (1995-96).
"It was obviously a tale of two halves when you look at the game," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "When you get down to four teams in the country, you are going to end up in a good ball game. My hat goes off to Sam Houston. They played a very good football game."
The Bearkats' All-American running back Tim Flannery rushed 34 times for 231 yards to offset a nine-reception, 215-yard, three-touchdown performance by Eastern Washington All-American receiver Brandon Kaufman.
EWU freshman quarterback Vernon Adams came off the bench in relief of a struggling Kyle Padron to complete 14-of-26 passes for 364 yards and a playoff-record-tying six touchdowns in the second half.
But the Eagles (11-3) had dug themselves too big a hole in a first-half collapse and couldn't catch the Bearkats with a big finishing kick.
Three plays were particularly damaging to EWU's hopes.
After SHSU quarterback Brian Bell gave the Bearkats a lead midway through the first period with a six-yard scoring run, Padron (8-of-16, 117 yards passing) misread a defensive coverage and fired a pass into the arms of cornerback Robert Shaw.
It was the first of two interceptions for Shaw, who dashed 37 yards untouched into the end zone. With three minutes left in the first quarter, Sam Houston State had a comfortable 14-0 advantage.
As the second quarter started, Eastern Washington had a chance to cut into that lead after Padron found Greg Herd (four catches, 88 yards, one TD) on a 43-yard pass connection.
Jimmy Pavel, EWU's All-American kicker, had converted 17-of-18 field goal attempts during the season. But when he was called on to get the Eagles on the scoreboard, Pavel hooked his kick inches left of the upright and Eastern Washington still trailed by two touchdowns.
From there, the Bearkats dominated the action in the second period on three more scoring drives — ending with Bell's 72-yard TD burst, a 15-yard scamper by Keshawn Hill and a six-yard Wildcat smash from Richard Sincere.
Compounding matters, Adams had a forced, second-and-10 pass from the SHSU 27 intercepted by Shaw at the one to kill another scoring threat.
It was 35-0 at halftime and many Eagle fans streamed for the exits. It seemed like a rematch between Sam Houston State and North Dakota State in the national championship game was inevitable.
But after an early third-quarter defensive stop on the Bearkats, Eastern Washington caught fire.
Two minutes into the second half, Adams found Herd on a 31-yard scoring strike and it was 35-7.
On a third and 11 from the Eagle 43, Bell was sacked by Jakob Pugsley and fumbled for a 12-yard loss. The Bearkats were fortunate to recover, but had to punt the ball away.
In less than two-and-a-half minutes, EWU was on the board again as Adams hit Kaufman for the first of the sure-handed junior's three touchdown receptions. Thirty-one yards later, it was 35-14 with two minutes remaining in the third period.
Momentum completely flipped when Eastern Washington's Kevin Miller went for an onside kick and the Eagles recovered at their own 46.
A pass interference call against Sam Houston State on a brilliant move from Kaufman gave Eastern Washington a key first down and on the next play, Adams drilled Ashton Clark with a 43-yard TD aerial and it was unthinkably 35-21 with a minute remaining in the third stanza.
Sam Houston State managed only one first down before turning the ball back to the Eagles and it took just two plays for EWU to make it a one-score game. Adams was on target to Clark for 29 yards and then Kaufman somehow grabbed on to a 43-yard toss for simultaneous possession in the end zone.
With 13 minutes left, Eastern Washinton trailed 35-28 after scoring its fourth consecutive touchdown.
But from there, the Bearkats did just enough to finish off the win.
A five-play, 86-yard drive reestablished order for SHSU as Bell had three key completions and Flanders rolled for 49 yards.
Bell's pass to Shane Young at the goal line flag for a four-yard touchdown to expand the lead to 42-28 with 10:49 on the fourth-quarter clock.
Kaufman set up another scoring chance for the Eagles with another brilliant, 60-yard catch and run and preseason All-American Nicholas Edwards shook off the rust of an injury-plagued year when he gathered in a seven-yard pass on a fade route to make it 42-35 with 9:48 still left.
The problem, however, was that the Eagle defense couldn't stop Flanders, or the option pitch with any consistency.
The Bearkats milked about half of the remaining time off the clock after a 34-yard Keshawn Hill kickoff return, using an eight-play, 36-yard possession to set up Miguel Antonio's 42-yard field goal.
With 5:33 still to play, SHSU had a 10-point edge at 45-35.
Gambling for another big play, Adams was picked off by SHSU safety Dax Swanson, but the Eagle defense forced a three-and-out from the Bearkats to get the ball back.
All it took was two plays for another Eagle score as Adams scrambled for 19 yards and then passed to the 6-foot-5 Kaufman for still another touchdown, this time from 33 yards.
Trailing by three points with three minutes left, Eastern Washington had a major decision. Do you try the onside kick, or pin the Bearkats deep with a regular kickoff?
The onside kick from Miller proved to be the wrong decision as SHSU recovered at the Eagle 44.
Twice on the ensuing drive, EWU forced Sam Houston State into third down situations, but Melvin Pride took a pitch for 10 yards on the first and Flannery broke three tackles for five yards on the second one to clinch the game.
"We are not into any moral victories no matter who we are playing," Baldwin said. "I told our guys in the locker room I was really, really proud of our guys to be where we were at 35-0, and to not just fight back with what you saw on the field, but to fight back with their attitude in the locker room, and their attitude coming out of halftime and to stay together."
It nearly resulted in the biggest comeback in FCS history.
"That allowed us to have an opportunity to still have a shot to win a game when no one expected us to," said Baldwin. "I am very proud of that."