REFUSING TO BE DENIED

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Punching their ticket to FCS title game, the Sam Houston State Bearkats mount thrilling second half comeback to knock off top-ranked James Madison, 38-35

HUNTSVILLE — Coming into the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national semifinal matchup last Saturday, third-seed James Madison had a chip on its shoulder. After all, the Dukes wrapped up the regular season as the No. 1 ranked team in the final AGFCA FCS Coaches poll before being slighted in the postseason seedings.

After grabbing a 21-point halftime lead against second-seed Sam Houston State at Huntsville’s Bowers Stadium, it appeared James Madison had made its point.

But playing in their third FCS semifinal game since 2015, the Bearkats roared back in the second half to take the lead and hold off a late rally for a dramatic 38-35 victory. With the win, Sam Houston State (9-0) advances to the FCS championship game for the third time to face top-seed South Dakota State (8-1) Sunday at 1 p.m. at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium.

While the prolific Bearkat offensive attack came alive in the second half behind quarterback Eric Schmid, special teams and a turnover-producing defense proved to be the difference.

“We’ve done a pretty good job winning the turnover battle in these playoff games, ” Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler said. “And that’s something that has to continue against South Dakota State.”

Trailing 24-3 at intermission, the Bearkats came out of the locker room looking like different team. And once Sam Houston State found the end zone seven minutes into the third quarter, the Bearkats went on a wild scoring spree.

Getting things started, Schmid connected with wideouts Cody Crest and Ife Adeyi for gains of 17 and 18 yards with the pass to Crest also drawing a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty. Running back Ramon Jefferson helped the Kats cut the lead to 24-10 with a seven-yard touchdown run.

Although James Madison answered with a 48-yard field goal, the Bearkats promptly responded. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Schmid hit a wide-open Jequez Ezzard, who dodged defenders and raced his way to a thrilling 69-yard score.

But Ezzard was just getting warmed up. After a defensive stop, he took the punt 80 yards to the end zone to cut the lead to 27-24 with 42 seconds left in the third quarter.

“We have a lot of options to get him the ball when he’s one-on-one, Schmid said. ‘When I see him in man coverage, I have a lot of faith he’s going to get open like he did today. He made two big plays to put us right back in the game. We have to keep finding him ways to get the ball.”

With momentum swung in Sam Houston State’s favor, Bearkat Ryan Humphries recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and Schimd quickly capitalized with a 20-yard touchdown run to give the Kats their first lead since the opening quarter, 31-27.

Picking up where they left off as the fourth quarter began, Bearkat defensive back Zyon McCollum picked off Duke quarterback Cole Johnson on the first play following the kickoff. Once again, Schmid capped the scoring drive with an 11-yard run as the Bearkats went up 38-27 with 12:16 left in the game.

But James Madison was not done yet as Johnson connected with Scott Bracey on a 34-yard scoring strike to cut the lead to 38-35.

Then with the Dukes threatening again late in the fourth quarter, Bearkat Joseph Wallace busted through the line and sacked backup quarterback Gage Moloney for a seven-yard loss on third-and-nine at the SHSU 27, forcing a 51-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide left. Sam Houston State then run out the clock to secure the win and remain undefeated at home in the playoffs with an all-time 16-0 record.

“We came out of the halftime focused on taking the ball away and winning on third down,” Bearkats defensive lineman Jahari Kay said. “They had the momentum going into the half, and we had to get the momentum back. We were able to stand up to the challenge.”

The 21-point comeback tied the biggest comeback for a win in Sam Houston State football history. The last time the Bearkats overcame a 21-point deficit for a win with just 13:39 to play to defeat Southwest Texas, 32-31, in Huntsville on November 22, 1986.

Photos courtesy of SAM HOUSTON STATE ATHLETICS

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