HUNTSVILLE - If this is what happens when Texas teams meet in the FCS playoffs, then sign me up for a lifetime of these games because the first two games ever between FCS teams in Texas have been straight classics.
No. 1 Sam Houston used a late touchdown drive by the offense and a stop from the defense at the one-yard line to secure a 49-42 win over No. 15 UIW at Elliot T. Bowers Stadium on Saturday. The Bearkats advance to host Montana State either Friday or Saturday next week.
Here are four observations from the game.
A different approach with the same result
Both teams relied on the strengths of their offense during the contest, which resulted in 1,156 total yards combined. However, both teams used different philosophies to achieve the results.
UIW relied on its passing attack, and quarterback Cameron Ward put on a show completing 39-of-61 passes for 481 yards and five touchdowns while the Bearkats pounded the Cardinals on the ground racking up 346 rushing yards in the game.
"That quarterback is special,” Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler said. “I don't think we'll see anyone else in the country that good not only with how quick the ball comes out but his ability to extend plays, shake off tacklers, and throw the ball away when things aren't there."
"That quarterback is great,” Bearkats defensive lineman Jahari Kay added. “He's a good football player, and they have a good offense with a quick 1-2 punch. They run quick screens and outs with shifty guys at wide receiver, and they came to play."
Bearkats choose to score touchdown
One of the most significant decisions in the game came with 2:07 remaining in regulation and Sam Houston facing a first and goal at the UIW three-yard line. The Bearkats called a timeout to discuss their strategy.
Instead of taking a knee and kicking a field goal, Keeler decided to put the ball in the end zone.
“We have a great field goal kicker,” Keeler said. “He also missed the last extra point of the game against South Dakota State in the national championship game, which opened the door for them to kick a long field goal and beat us possibly. I'd rather put the ball in and play defense - that's just how I am.
"We could’ve tried to get it to the one-inch line and then bang it in at the end, but that's not something we've worked on, and I didn't want to make something up on the fly in a game like this and regret it (later)."
Keeler also thought UIW might employ a “let them score” strategy.
"I think they were going to let us score, and there was too much that could go wrong by not scoring, so we decided to score and give them two minutes left,” Keeler said. “I will reconsider that decision in the future. But, it worked out in our favor this time."
Leaving it all on the table
UIW coach Eric Morris has been known as a risk-taker. Saturday, the Cardinals played with nothing to lose throughout the contest and nearly pulled off the upset.
On three occasions, the Cardinals kept their offense on the field on fourth down with the ball in the red zone, including the final quarterback draw where Ward was stopped at the one-yard line.
"I'm devastated for our kids. We've got the heart of a lion, and everyone saw that today we just came up about an inch short,” Morris said. "They were in soft coverage, and when you get that close, it's hard to pass it, especially with their pass rush, so we tried to catch them off balance. They have the best defensive line in the nation, and we just came up inches short.
"We trust our guys, and they give us four downs to get a first down, so we want to take advantage of all of them. When you trust your team the way we do, we put it in our guy’s hands, and it's helped to be aggressive all year. You don't get this far into the playoffs and playing against the defending national champions and go against what got you here."
"It was a light box, and the run is always going to be a good option because it's tough to throw against that coverage,” Ward said about the final play. “I tried to execute that, and I didn't get the job done."
Experience played a significant role
The postseason experience of the Bearkats paid dividends on Saturday. SHSU won four games en route to the national title in the spring, with every game decided by six points or less.
"We've been here before, and we've been in a national championship game that came down to the wire, and we had to get a stop,” Kay said. “Our previous playoff run played a tremendous part at the end."
"Even the experience we've had this year against SFA, where it came down to the last drive, and we had to put the ball in the endzone,” Sam Houston running back Ramon Jefferson added. “Going into the playoffs in the spring we were six games in, and now we're 21 games in, so this team has a lot of experience, and nothing fazes us."
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