Sam Houston State hangs on to advance to FCS semifinals

(STATS) – Critics have considered Sam Houston State overrated so often in recent years that the Bearkats are probably underrated these days.

All Sam Houston does is win, though, and the No. 6 seed in the FCS playoffs is returning to the semifinals after holding off Kennesaw State 34-27 in a quarterfinal Saturday night at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas.

Sam Houston (12-1) will visit No. 2 seed North Dakota State (12-1) Friday night. The Bison routed Wofford 42-10 in a quarterfinal earlier Saturday.

NDSU (26) and Sam Houston (16) have the most playoff wins in the FCS this decade. While the host Bison will appear in their FCS-record seventh consecutive semifinal, the Bearkats will be there for the third time in coach K.C. Keeler’s four years at the helm and the fifth time in seven years. But the Southland Conference power has suffered some lopsided defeats in the playoffs – hence the criticism – and they’ve dropped two championship games and one semifinal to NDSU in that time.

“We talk about them all the time in terms of they’re the standard,” Keeler said. “Alabama, North Dakota State, they’re the standard. And we’re excited to get a chance to go play them at their place. If you’re going to beat the best, you want to beat them at their place.”

In its first meeting against Kennesaw State, Sam Houston kept the Owls (12-2) from becoming the first Big South team to reach the semifinals while ending their 12-game winning streak. The matchup featured Kennesaw’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack in the FCS, which gained 352 yards on 64 carries, and Sam Houston’s No. 1 passing attack led by Jeremiah Briscoe. The senior quarterback threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Yedidiah Louis.

Sam Houston’s often-maligned defense was excellent in the first half while the Bearkats built as much as a 24-7 lead. Kennesaw State’s offense then found its rhythm, including through the air, and the Owls inched their way back within seven points twice in the fourth quarter.

With Kennesaw trailing 34-27, Dustin Clabough’s diving interception of Briscoe gave the Owls the ball at the Bearkats’ 41 with 5:04 left.

The Owls picked up two first downs and got as far as the 11 before the drive stalled. On 4th-and-5, the Owls pitched a reverse to Ezra Naylor, who was forced backward while crossing the pocket before being dropped for a 4-yard loss with 1:24 left, effectively clinching Sam Houston’s win.

“We knew we were just going to have to play assignment football,” said Bearkats defensive end Chris Stewart, who had a game-high 15 tackles with two sacks. “We knew they were going to get yards on us. But our focus is trying to get our offense as many possessions as we could, and that’s what we did tonight.”

Sam Houston State had a 24-10 halftime lead, answering Kennesaw State junior Darnell Holland’s 13-yard touchdown run less than four minutes into the game with 24 unanswered points over four straight possessions. Included were Briscoe touchdown passes to Nathan Stewart on a 61-yard bomb and Louis on a 16-yard screen pass. The second one was the 100th in the last two seasons for Briscoe, the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner.

“You saw two of the best teams in the country going after it,” Keeler said.