It would have been the mother of all Eagle comebacks.
Eastern Washington University rallied from a 35-0 halftime deficit to pull within three points in the fourth quarter, but Sam Houston State was able to hold off the Eagles for a 45-42 win at Roos Field Saturday (Dec. 15) in the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
After falling behind 35-0 in a disastrous first half, the Eagles scored 28-straight points behind backup quarterback Vernon Adams to get back into the game. But the Bearkats put the game away with 10 fourth-quarter points and a pair of first downs in the last possession of the game.
The loss spoiled a record-breaking performance by EWU wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, who broke the FCS record for single season receiving yards. He finished the season with 1,850 yards (93 receptions and 16 TD) to break the record of 1,712 previously held by Eddie Conti of Delaware in 1998.
Kaufman finished with nine catches for a career-high 215 yards and three touchdowns, with his yardage ranking fifth in school history. Adams, who relieved starter Kyle Padron late in the first half, finished the game 14-of-26 for 364 yards and equaled the school record Padron set a week earlier in a 51-35 victory over Illinois State with six touchdown passes.
In November and beyond, Eastern is now 13-1 since 2010, and 22-4 since 2007. The Eagles, who have won 11 games since 2010 when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter, lost for the first time in eight games at home this season, and are now 17-3 at the Inferno since 2010.
“It was obviously a tale of two halves when you look at the game,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “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.
“We are not into any moral victories no matter who we are playing,” he continued. “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. That allowed us to have an opportunity to still have a shot to win a game when no one expected us to. I am very proud of that.”
Junior Ashton Clark added five catches for 135 yards and a touchdown, and senior Greg Herd had four grabs for 88 yards and a touchdown. Padron was 8-of-16 for 117 yards and was sacked four times.
Defensively, senior Zach Johnson led the Eagles with 12 tackles, giving him 324 in his career to rank seventh in school history. Juniors Allen Brown and Ronnie Hamlin each had nine stops.
Eastern finished with 523 yards of total offense and Sam Houston State had 503. Eastern’s total included 481 passing yards while the Bearkats had 459 of their yards on the ground. In the second half, Eastern had a 360-250 advantage.
The Bearkats punched its ticket to a repeat trip to Texas to play for the NCAA Division I title against North Dakota State. The championship game is Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas, at 10 a.m. Pacific time on ESPN2. Eastern played and won in the game in 2010; Sam Houston State played and lost in last year’s title tilt to NDSU.
Second-seeded Eastern, which was ranked fourth in the final regular season Sports Network Top-25 poll, finished the season 11-3. The Eagles, who had won five games in a row, defeated Wagner 29-19 in the second round on Dec. 1 and Illinois State 51-35 in the quarterfinals on Dec. 8.
The Bearkats improved to 11-3, and ended the regular season ranked fifth and were unseeded in the playoffs. But they knocked off Big Sky foes Cal Poly (18-16) and Montana State (34-16) in consecutive weeks to open the playoffs. A year ago, the Bearkats eliminated MSU in the quarterfinals (49-13) and Montana in the semifinals (31-28).
Both teams have advanced to the national championship game in the past two years, with EWU defeating Delaware 20-19 for the 2010 title and Sam Houston State falling to North Dakota State 17-16 in 2011.
This week’s EWU-SHSU meeting is only the beginning, as the two teams announced last June that they will start a home-and-home series beginning in the 2013 campaign. Eastern will travel to Huntsville, Texas, to play Sam Houston State on Sept. 28, 2013. The Bearkats will then play in Cheney at Roos Field on Sept. 13, 2014. The only previous meeting between the Eagles and Bearkats came in the quarterfinals of the playoffs in 2014 when Sam Houston State rallied from a 34-14 fourth-quarter deficit to win 35-34 on the game’s final play.
A year ago, Eastern won six of its last seven games, and narrowly missed the playoffs with a 6-5 record. Meanwhile, Sam Houston State rolled to 14 consecutive football victories and its first outright Southland Conference football title. The Bearkats were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and advanced to the championship game in Frisco, Texas, located just 200 miles from their campus.
A year earlier, Eastern finished the 2010 season with 11-straight wins, including a 20-19 victory over Delaware in the title tilt in Frisco. Sam Houston, meanwhile, was 6-5 in its first season under head coach Willie Fritz.
Eastern is now 11-8 in nine playoff appearances (1985, 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012), and had their six-game playoff streak snapped by SHSU. The Bearkats have now made six appearances in the playoffs (1986, 1991, 2001, 2004, 2011, 2012).