Guts, Grit, and Heart Lifted Sam Houston to First FCS Title
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Guts, Grit, and Heart Lifted Sam Houston to First FCS Title
The storylines going into Sunday's afternoon matchup were myriad. If you've followed this wacky, weird, oftentimes confusing FCS football season, then you already know that the build-up to the FCS National Championship game didn't come without some drama, and it ended in what can only be described as the most dramatic fashion.
With sixteen seconds left, Sam Houston starting quarterback Eric Schmid threw an absolute dart to wide receiver Ife Adeyi in the middle of the endzone threading the needle between practically the entire South Dakota State secondary. Schmid's 10-yard strike, his third touchdown pass of the day, ended up being just enough for the number two-seeded Bearkats to hang on for two defensive plays and capture their first-ever Division I FCS national title ultimately winning 23-21 in front of 7,840 fans under capacity limitations.
While no one in FC Dallas's Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas had any doubt about that touchdown, there were plenty of doubts surrounding the lead-in to not only the FCS title game but the season at large. Ultimately, it was the Bearkats who had just enough to get past number one-seeded South Dakota State for the win.
How Did We End Up Here?
Probably the most appropriate question Sam Houston fans asked themselves throughout the FCS season, which ended in a perfect 10-0 record, was just that: "How did we end up here?" It was asked in both perplexion and exuberance, as a question and as an exclamation, but in the end as a statement.
A season that began in early February started about as expected with a 43-38 shootout win for Sam Houston against longtime Southland Conference rival Southeastern Louisiana (led by none other than the Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Cole Kelley). That game, in the minds of most Kat fans, called into question the big talk from Sam's helmsman K.C. Keeler about getting bigger, more physical, and not relying as much on the high-powered offense of the Jeremiah Briscoe era.
Perhaps some of those concerns were put to rest in the following weeks. A blowout of then-#7-ranked Nicholls followed by another of rival Lamar had the Kats sitting at 3-0 halfway through their abbreviated conference season and in control of their own destiny going into clashes with Northwestern State, McNeese, and Incarnate Word--the latter a game that was rescheduled from being the opening game of the season for both teams due to issues with Covid.
A head-scratching, "How did we end up here?" win over Northwestern Louisiana in Natchitoches followed by a less-than-impressive 27-13 victory over McNeese had fans again wondering what kind of football team they had this season. One thing that had become evidently clear is that this Sam Houston team was built to take a punch and wasn't scared to fight back.
Going into the season finale in San Antonio against Incarnate Word, there were still questions about Sam's ability to score consistently with their offense while many of the questions surrounding the defense fizzled out with commanding performances bolstered by some of the best defensive statistics in the nation. At the end of that April 17th tilt with Incarnate Word, a 42-14 Sam Houston win, it was clear that the Bearkats had earned the respect of not only their SLC and future WAC conference mates, but the entire nation.
The result of that undefeated 6-0 regular season was the awarding of the number two overall seed in the pared-down 16-team playoff field. That number two seed meant that the Kats never had to leave the State of Texas if they were to win the national title. Many FCS pundits, big wigs, and otherwise self-proclaimed FCS experts, as well as fans from all over the country, cried foul that the Kats "earned" their seeding. Meanwhile, both James Madison and North Dakota State both had issues during the season with Covid ultimately forcing both squads to take multiple weeks off from competition. As a result, JMU received the 3-seed while NDSU was--for what seems like never--was unseeded. Unfortunately for the Kats, both squads were on their corner of the bracket.
The Second Season
It's crazy to think that there were teams "eligible" and in the playoff bracket that quite literally could win the National Championship by winning more playoff games than regular-season games, but that was the reality of the "2020" playoffs. The Bearkats' first opponent, Monmouth, came in somewhat under the radar as a 3-0 automatic bid representative of the Big South Conference after disposing of then-number seven-ranked Kennesaw State.
K.C. Keeler minced no words in the lead-up to that game and as late as National Championship week about how talented the Monmouth Hawks really were, and perhaps casual fans were taken aback when Sam Houston had to quite literally steal the game away from Monmouth in the closing seconds with an interception. For those who have followed the Kats throughout the season, things were doom and gloom around Bearkat Nation with many fans predicting that the following week's quarterfinal matchup against back-to-back-to-back FCS Champion North Dakota State would be their last, and it certainly looked that way.
But that's when Eric Schmid made a play.
One of the hallmarks of K.C. Keeler's teams at Sam has been an inability to finish close games and win those often crucial one-possession contests on the winning side. More often than not, past SHSU teams took punch after punch but simply couldn't deliver or punch back in the end--a secret to no one wearing orange and white and especially no one wearing Bison green and gold or JMU purple and white. Those JMU and NDSU teams have made a living eliminating Sam Houston by rather spectacular margins, and Keeler has been very public about how the last humiliating butt-whooping in Fargo to fizzle the 2017 campaign was a wakeup call for him and his coaching staff.
Up 17-2 after opening the second half with a touchdown, the Kats looked to be very much in control of a game that NDSU had by and large been ineffective in. That changed when the Sam Houston special teams unit gave up the ensuing kickoff return for a touchdown followed by a punt return touchdown to give NDSU 15 quick points following a two-point conversion. Tied at 17, the Sam defense stiffened to force a 33-yard field goal midway through the 4th quarter and looked destined to blow another lead in consecutive weeks, but the gutsiest player on the field wouldn't let the Bearkats go quietly.
It was Schmid, who on 3rd and 10 from his own 48 yard line, dropped an absolute dime to a streaking Ife Adeyi on the Sam Houston sideline. Schmid, who had been criticized by fans at times throughout the season for lack of arm strength and accuracy issues summoned every bit of his gall and inner Aaron Rodgers to make a perfect pass and punctuate the drive with a 6-yard touchdown scamper to give the Kats a lead they would never relinquish.
Perhaps the statement from those first two playoff games wasn't the offensive fireworks so many Sam Houston fans have become accustomed to over the past decade but the defensive stands that finished the games. The "finiSH" model--once thought by many to be coach-speak--actually started to have some life to it. Yes, NDSU lost their all-world quarterback to the San Francisco 49ers, but NDSU was no slouch and despite being outside of the top four in the final FCS playoff seedings, still had one of the more dominant defenses and a running game to boot. Beating NDSU was a statement that Sam Houston's born-again model of physicality, size, and a dominating defense may not have been a bunch of recruiting hogwash after all.
But if guts and perseverance were what you wanted out of a football team, by the time the National Semifinals rolled around and the Bearkats kicked off against traditional east coast juggernaut James Madison, you were in for a treat. The storyline going into the May 8th tilt with JMU was two-fold. One, the JMU fans and media weren't going to let Sam's 65-7 dumpster fire performance in Harrisonburg on December 9th, 2016 fly under the radar. Sure, the Kats for all but two plays mostly handled an otherwise "jalopy of an NDSU team" that was "only playing spring ball for a tune-up", but playing the Dukes was going to be a different story with different narratives and some epic Twitter trolling in the week to come. (Quotes are mine and are meant in jest.)
If you're a Sam Houston fan, then you likely won't mind me taking some creative liberties to jump into the weeds for just a moment because nothing feels quite as good as trolling the ultimate trolls. Leading into game week, James Madison's "JMU Barstool" Twitter account rattled off a 70-character, 14-word tweet that would both rile up Bearkat Nation and live in infamy.
To their credit, after Sam's last performance against the Dukes, there weren't many, aside from the Huntsville faithful, who exactly disagreed with that statement. And to their further credit, they didn't delete the Tweet after it soured--something former JMU quarterback Ben DiNucci and the rest of the Duke's fanbase were about to witness.
The Kardiac Kats
After a mostly innocuous start to the game and a 3-0 SHSU lead going into the second quarter, it appeared that JMU had met a fair match in this season's version of Bearkat football, but the tides shifted almost immediately in the second quarter. After forcing a JMU field goal inside their own 10 yard line, JMU rattled off 21 unanswered points in the first half's final 9:09 culminating with a touchdown pass with only 10 seconds remaining on the clock to take a 24-3 lead into halftime.
It was the meltdown everyone in the FCS world had expected out of Sam Houston and appeared to be the beginning of the end of an otherwise promising campaign for the Kats, and if you tuned out at halftime of that semifinal contest, no one would have blamed you. But if you happened to check the score a few minutes later, you, along with the rest of the FCS nation, JMU Barstool's Twitter, and Ben DiNucci were in for a surprise.
The first five-or-so minutes of the 3rd quarter seemed like a pedestrian affair. JMU, up by three touchdowns, traded a possession with the Kats before Sam Houston engineered their first touchdown scoring drive of the game by punctuating a 7-play, 80-yard drive with a Ramon Jefferson 7-yard touchdown plunge.
JMU, on their ensuing possession, knocked through a 48-yard field goal to go up 27-10. Then things got interesting.
On the second play of Sam's next drive, Schmid hit superstar wideout Jequez Ezzard for a 69-yard catch and run. 38 seconds and another 7 points. Then after a JMU 3-and-out that only burned 42 seconds of clock time, Jaquez Ezzard again added to his already lengthy season-long highlight-reel by running back the JMU punt 80 yards for another touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, into a traditionally stiff wind out of the southern endzone at Bowers Stadium, JMU made another costly special teams blunder.
K.C. Keeler, realizing that the wind was more than a factor told placekicker Seth Morgan to kick it deep. To no one's surprise, except for the JMU return team, Morgan's kick hung in the air like a backspinning pitching wedge. Unable to locate the ball or make any sort of last-minute adjustment to field the kickoff, JMU's return man stuttered, then retreated slightly. The result was a live ball recovered by the Bearkats on the JMU 32. Now down 27-24 with the ball already deep in JMU territory and still 39 seconds remaining in the 3rd quarter, Sam's offense went to work again. This time, it was Schmid running it in from 20 yards out. Morgan's PAT made the score 31-27 in favor of the Bearkats as time expired in the quarter.
What seemed like a nearly improbable comeback had become just that. JMU fans, as well as the JMU sideline, stood stunned as the Kats hung 28 unanswered points on them in the span of only about 8 minutes of game time. And if that wasn't enough, JMU quarterback Cole Johnson was picked off on the first offensive play from scrimmage to start the 4th quarter. Again deep in JMU territory, it only took another 2:39 for the Kats to score another touchdown on the legs (and on the back) of Eric Schmid. In less than a quarter of play, the Sam Houston Bearkats had erased a 21-point halftime deficit to take the lead over powerful James Madison.
JMU rallied for a touchdown and two-point conversion of their own on their next drive, but quarterback Cole Johnson was seemingly injured on the two-point try and ultimately exited the game which left the offense to backup Gage Moloney. A badly missed 52-yard field goal attempt by JMU followed by a personal foul penalty on 4th down after a Sam Houston 3-and-out gave the Kats the ball, the victory formation, and their 3rd trip to Frisco.
What can't be underscored enough in that 38-35 victory over JMU is the fact that the Kats, while hemorrhaging badly, never bled out. K.C. Keeler, in whatever he said in the halftime locker room, may very well have delivered the leadership this team needed to persevere and rally in what was otherwise a bleak situation. In speaking with the FCS Nation podcast in the week leading up to Frisco, he said that there was about a 7-minute span where the team lost their heads, lost their focus, and panicked, but as we've seen all season, this team was different.
From Huntsville to Frisco
There were a great number of storylines in the week leading up to the FCS National Championship game, and virtually all of them had some meaning to the stakeholders involved. Here are some (but not all) of the most talked-about storylines for the championship:
SDSU, seeded number one, was playing for its first title under 24th-year head coach John Stiegelmeier who took over the program as a Division II school in 1997 and guided the Jackrabbits to a Great West Conference title in 2007 followed by FCS Playoff appearances in 10 of their 13 seasons since joining the Missouri Valley Conference--home to national power and rival North Dakota State. Stig, as he is affectionately known in Brookings, South Dakota, has also guided the Jacks to two MVFC titles both in the past five seasons.
K.C. Keeler, who has a self-proclaimed PhD in playoff football, tied legendary FCS coach and future Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel in FCS playoff wins with the victory over JMU. A win in the National Championship would give KCK his second FCS title after winning at his alma mater Delaware in 2003, become the first coach to win titles at two different schools, and pass Tressel as the all-time leader in FCS playoff wins. While Keeler may have a PhD in playoffs, it could be argued that he's "ABD" to use the academic term. As the head coach of Division III Rowan, Keeler was 0-5 in Stagg Bowl games losing 3 of those 5 contests to perennial D-III power Mount Union. As Delaware skipper, KCK took three teams to the title game but only came away with the 2003 win while losing the 2007 and 2010 title matches.
SDSU was led by true freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski, wideout twin brothers Jaxon and Jadon Janke, freshman running back Isaiah Davis, and junior running back Pierre Strong, Jr.--the latter leading the team in rushing going into Sunday's game. Gronowski, a mid-season revelation to the Jackrabbits, was a dual-threat to not only shred defenses through the air but also with the power running game. Davis, SDSU's home run hitting back, was buffered by the steady and reliable Pierre Strong, Jr. The talk of the week was respecting the running ability of the SDSU offense while sequestering the freshman quarterback Gronowski.
Sam Houston on the other hand had been propped up all season by stellar defensive performances and ranked as one of the top defenses in FCS entering the championship. The Kats were lead on the offensive side of the ball by the gritty Eric Schmid who many in Huntsville believe was snubbed for the Walter Payton award after winning the Southland Conference's Player of the Year award. "Showtime" Jequez Ezzard was awarded the conference's Newcomer of the Year award while skipper K.C. Keeler was coach of the year.
The storyline that continually developed throughout championship week was the impending weather system that was expected to move into the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex around game time. Heavy rain was expected with the National Weather Service predicting 1-2" of rainfall during the day, most of which coming just before kickoff and during the majority of the contest. Some fans and media members gave SDSU the slight edge in sloppy weather conditions while others maintained that neither team had a particular advantage in wet weather conditions.
While there were certainly other storylines to emerge throughout the week, perhaps none were bigger than both teams searching for their first national title. SDSU, under Stig's leadership over the past two decades of FCS play, had become a viable program to contend with NDSU's dominance of the subdivision while Sam Houston was trying to prove to a season of doubters that they not only deserved the number two seed, belonged in the national championship, but could earn it with a win. Two experienced coaches, hardened teams, and lots of drama were in store for the kickoff at Toyota Stadium.
1:00 PM, Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
As expected, the weather conditions deteriorated throughout the morning and into the early afternoon and by the time the teams took the natural grass field at Toyota Stadium for pre-game warmups, it was clear that fans were in for a wet, potentially very sloppy contest.
The start to the championship tilt wasn't without its miscues--mostly weather-induced--but perhaps the lowlight of the contest came only a few offensive plays in when SDSU's Gronowski was landed on awkwardly during the Jackrabbits first possession. After picking up a first down on their second play from scrimmage, Gronowski was caught up in traffic and got what appeared to be a knee or ankle wrapped up in the mass of humanity below him. His throw on the next play--a 3rd-and-7--came out lifeless and without much power. Gronowski hobbled off to the SDSU sideline never to return to the game.
While the wet conditions weren't necessarily responsible for Gronowski's injury, they were responsible for what happened next. Sam, after taking over at their own 20 yard line, pushed the ball up to near midfield before a Jequez Ezzard false start penalty moved the ball back to the SHSU 43. A high snap on the next play couldn't be corralled by Schmid, and SDSU recovered at the Kats 41. Five plays later, on the legs of Isaiah Davis, SDSU punched it in to take a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
On Sam's ensuing possession, following a 3-and-out, normally sure-handed punter Matt McRobert was unable to secure the snap and ultimately fell on the ball at the Kat's 19 yard line. The second Sam Houston miscue in as many drives had SDSU already in the redzone with a chance--considering the weather conditions--to put Sam Houston's back against the wall. With backup quarterback Keaton Heide now in for his second series as quarterback, it was the Kat defense that stood tall to force a field attempt. The weather again interfered with the handling of the football and the SDSU holder couldn't get the ball down and kicker Cole Frahm was form tackled to end the drive.
From that point, both teams settled down significantly. As the first quarter winded down and we entered into the 2nd quarter, it was Sam Houston who was able to move the ball slightly more effectively than SDSU and more importantly controlled the field position early on.
Finally, after pinning the Jackrabbits deep in their own territory, the SHSU offense had an opportunity and wasted no time capitalizing. The drive which started at the Sam 44, advanced quickly to the SDSU 35. That's when Eric Schmid hit Jequez Ezzard on a widout comeback route, and Ezzard did the rest. A play that started on the offensive left side of the field spanned the entire width of the field with Ezzard slashing, eluding, and ultimately outrunning the SDSU defense to tie the game at 7.
Four plays into SDSU's next drive, lightning in the area forced both teams off of the field. In the most 2020 thing to happen to this point in the championship, play was delayed for 71 minutes following multiple successive strikes in the area. Not only were things delayed, but as a result of the extremely lengthy layoff, it was announced that halftime would be a mere 3 minutes long--just long enough to get off the couch and refill your refreshments glass.
While it's hard to tell what a delay such as that would have on a football team, it's safe to say that it was anyone's game at that point especially with the game tied 7-7 when play restarted.
Play resumed after the lightning delay with South Dakota State driving on the Sam Houston 41 yard line with 8:25 remaining in the first half. After moving the ball mostly on the legs of Pierre Strong, Jr., the Kats defense again bent but never broke and forced a 43-yard field goal attempt that never had a chance.
From there, it was a 10-0 run from Sam Houston that spanned the remainder of the 2nd quarter and most of the 3rd. Schmid hit Ezzard from 15 yards out to cap a 9-play 74-yard drive towards the end of the first half, then with only 37 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, Seth Morgan hit--what is likely one of the most underrated plays of the game--a career-long 45-yard field goal on a sloppy wet field. The Kats, leading 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, felt very much in control of their destiny to win their first FCS National Championship.
Unfortunately for the Kats, SDSU wouldn't go quietly.
Big runs by freshman Isaiah Davis--one from 28 yards with 13:12 left in the 4th quarter, the other from 85 yards with 5:41 remaining--turned the tables on the otherwise strong-willed Sam Houston defense to regain the lead at 21-17. It was now up to the offensive superstars in the timelessly tough Eric Schmid, electric showstopper Jequez Ezzard, surehanded Ife Adeyi, and consistent Ramon Jefferson to summon every bit of their ability to take the Kats to the promised land and score the game-winning touchdown.
The drive started at the 35 yard line after SDSU kicker Cole Frahm made a crucial error and kicked the ball out of bounds on the SDSU sideline. That gave Schmid and company two things that should have caused concern for the Jackrabbits' defense: time and field position. But the lingering question would be exactly how the Kats could potentially engineer a game-winning drive. Too quick of a possession would give SDSU time and lots of momentum, especially with the career day Isaiah Davis had already racked up, but too slow of a drive would risk clock management issues with only one timeout remaining.
Nevertheless, the Kats took possession with 5:41 remaining in the contest needing a touchdown to take the lead. A 1-yard loss on a carry by Ramon Jefferson followed by consecutive Schmid pass completions to Ezzard of 5 and 7 yards respectively earned the Kat offense a first down near midfield. Chandler Harvin's reception and a 9-yard rush by Jefferson pushed the team another 14 yards and moved the sticks into SDSU territory.
Back-to-back incompletions set up a 3rd-and-10. Schmid, showing his mettle, picked up 9 yards to bring the down marker to 4th but with a much more manageable one-yard remaining. On that 4th-and-1, Schmid beautifully executed a read-option to Jefferson. As the SDSU defense crashed to the offensive right around Jefferson, Schmid pulled the ball and ran virtually untouched around the left end for a 9-yard pickup. On the next play, from the SDSU 22, Jackrabbits right defensive end Tolu Ogunrinde jumped offside and with a clear, unevaded shot to Schmid, firmly planted him for a sack; however, the penalty pushed the ball 5 yards downfield for a 1st-and-5.
Another read option, this time more poorly executed, resulted in a 4-yard loss. A 1-yard gain by Jefferson followed by a 5-yard pickup by Schmid left the Kats with a game-deciding 4th-and-3 from the Jackrabbits' 15 with only 38 seconds remaining in the game. This is perhaps where the gamers came out to play for their lives.
Following an SDSU timeout, Sam Houston offensive coordinator Ryan Carty drew up what should have been a routine pitch and catch near the SDSU sideline, but Ezzard slipped on the route and Schmid threw the ball slightly behind. Somehow, in what may very well have been a little glimmer of destiny, Ezzard came up with a clean catch. The reception by Ezzard, his tenth of the game, put the Kats within one play of a game-winning touchdown from the SDSU 10.
On first down, Schmid missed an open Isaac Schley near the right pylon. The next play, Schmid again went to Schley near the right pylon but missed badly. What may have been the greater miss was the slanting Jequez Ezzard who, with all attention on Schley's route in the front of the endzone, had drifted free behind the Jackrabbits zone coverage. It was a play that very well could have haunted Sam Houston and their fans for years to come, but the will to win simply wouldn't go away.
On 3rd-and-goal from the 10 with only 21 seconds remaining in the game, no timeouts, and a national title on the line, Eric Schmid took a shotgun snap and with a clean pocket, delivered perhaps the hardest thrown ball of his career to Ife Adeyi. Adeyi, the inside receiver on the left side of the formation, almost lazily made his way into the center of the field and just before he turned to look back, Schmid let loose his Arrow of Apollo. Schmid's fastball throw seemingly caught Adeyi by surprise as he turned, adjusted, caught the ball, and sat in the endzone almost simultaneously as the Sam Houston faithful erupted. Not only was Schmid's laser throw accurate, but it was what many coaches would consider foolish and primed for an interception: late, over the middle, and through (count them) three Jackrabbits defenders.
In a game that rode so much on razor-thin margins, Schmid decided to thread a needle. There was zero doubt when he released that ball that it was going to hit someone or something very hard. Fortunately for him, Ife "Glue" Adeyi, and the rest of the Sam Houston Bearkats, it was the right guy, at the right place, at the right time. Even a millisecond of hesitation on Schmid's part likely means a game-ending interception, and Adeyi, almost serendipitously, hauled in perhaps the biggest catch of his life and certainly the biggest of the Sam Houston football program with just 16 seconds remaining.
Seth Morgan, the rock-solid freshman kicker, actually missed the point after which left the score at 23-21 and loomed a little large over the game knowing that SDSU only needed a field goal to win and had timeouts to burn. It seemed to not matter as this Sam Houston team was seemingly destined to walk away with a victory even with a missed gimme extra point.
SDSU fielded the kickoff, ran off a few seconds during the return out to their own 38 yard line, and was tasked with moving the ball at least 27 yards to get into Cole Frohm field goal position. But with only 10 seconds remaining on the clock, moving the ball that far, that quickly, and having enough time remaining for a 50+ yard field goal attempt was a tall ask even with two timeouts remaining.
SDSU's first play, a hitch & pitch, gained 15 yards down to the SHSU 47 and burned 5 precious seconds of clock. An SDSU timeout followed. On the next play, SDSU dialed up virtually the same play with Jaxon Janke again taking the pitch but this time headed towards the Sam Houston sideline. As he looked back seemingly to pitch the ball to any teammate who may have been in the vicinity, Janke had to know that it was over. Whether the play was just poorly executed or was just simply a last-ditch effort to make something happen that didn't go as planned will never be known. The Sam defense rallied around Janke near the SHSU sideline and corralled him at the 34 yard line as time expired.
The celebration was on.
The Heart and Soul
A dedicated section of this article goes to Eric Schmid.
Schmid stood tall in the biggest game of his career and never backed down, never went out of the game, and took shot after shot from a headhunting Jackrabbits defense. (Read: aggressive, not intentionally malicious.) Schmid was sacked twice, hit multiple times as he threw, spit up blood from a cut in his mouth, tweaked his knee, and hit the dirt more times than any quarterback ever should in a football game. Listed at 6'1" and 180 lbs., the Bearkat signal-caller--for all intents and purposes--is not built to take shots as he did during that game.
Nevertheless, he did as he had done all year and absorbed the big hits, lowered his head to take on contact, ran the ball with aggression, and delivered when the game mattered most. Yes, Jaquez Ezzard was the game's Most Outstanding Player, but Schmid was the MVP. Schmid's name won't show up on the game's awards list, but it will forever be known to Bearkat fans as one of the toughest, grittiest, gutsiest efforts you'll ever see from a football player in SHSU history and perhaps of all time.
Eric Schmid embodied--in every imaginable way--what it is to be tough as a Bearkat.
The Plays that Were and the Plays that Weren't
This National Championship contest was full of big plays, but was also full of plays that happened but never happened at all. Here's a look at some of those plays that were both crucial and imagined.
Gronowski goes out. There's no doubt that losing Gronowski for SDSU was a big blow to them as a team. He was a true dual-threat at the quarterback position and really opened up the SDSU offense. After the game, fans and media asked if that was a difference-maker in the contest to lose your starting quarterback.
Some adhered to the, "There's no doubt that with him in the game SDSU wins;" however, others were more skeptical including K.C. Keeler who--whether coach-speak or not--mentioned that having Heide in the game forced SHSU to make a new gameplan for a different quarterback. And let's not forget, Heidi played well enough for SDSU to win. He was 11 for 22 with 107 passing yards and his lone interception came as time winded down in the second quarter. Those aren't game-losing numbers, and Isaiah Davis put that team on his back in the 4th quarter.
SDSU misses a golden opportunity after mishandled punt snap. After McRobert couldn't get the snap down on a punt attempt, SDSU took over on the SHSU 19 up 7-0. Considering the playing conditions, any points at all would have put the Kats on the ropes. Instead, the Jackrabbits committed a special teams blunder of their own and botched the hold/kick, and instead turned the ball over on downs to the Bearkats.
From there, SHSU played the field position game limiting SDSU's ability for a big score until the 4th quarter.
Ezzard's punt return called back. Late in the 1st quarter, Jequez Ezzard ran back a punt for a 63-yard touchdown only to have it called back due to an illegal block in the back that had absolutely no bearing on the play itself. That play would have tied the game 7-7 and given the Kats a huge momentum boost, but was it a blessing in disguise?
At least a few offensive plays for the Kats and giving the defense an opportunity to rest instead of turning your defense back out after only a few seconds of rest may have actually been better over the course of the game. Considering that the Kat defense struggled to contain the run in the 4th quarter, maybe having that little bit of extra energy towards the game was more crucial than tying the game early on. Again, we'll never know.
SDSU's missed field goal after the lightning delay. Coming out of the lightning delay, SDSU had the ball in SHSU territory and driving. Ultimately the drive stalled forcing a 43-yard Frohm field goal attempt. Frohm's kick never had a chance and may very well have been partially blocked, but that missed opportunity kept the game tied and gave the Kats an opportunity of their own.
Seth Morgan hits a career-long field goal. After stopping the Jackrabbits on 4th-and-2 with 4:57 remaining in the 3rd quarter, it felt as though a touchdown by the Sam Houston offense could really put the Jackrabbits against the wall. Instead, after driving 37 yards into SDSU territory, Sam's drive stalled and forced a career-long attempt for Seth Morgan.
On wet field conditions, and after seeing what SDSU was (and wasn't) able to do from the field goal package, you probably didn't feel great about Morgan's chances. Instead, he drilled--and I mean absolutely drilled--a 45-yard field goal to make it a two-score game going into the 4th quarter.
Isaiah Davis goes beast mode. Isaiah Davis, not normally SDSU's feature back, went off in the fourth quarter accounting for over 100 yards rushing and two Jackrabbits touchdowns in the final stanza. His 85-yard scamper put the Jackrabbits up 21-17 late in the 4th quarter and should have probably been the dagger of the game as Sam's normally stout defense that had not given up a 100-yard individual effort on the ground for nearly two seasons. Davis did it in one quarter.
Kats convert two fourth downs on their final drive. It really can't be understated how perfectly that final drive was executed for Sam Houston. 16 plays (most of the game by either team), 65 yards, and 5:25 (most of any scoring drive by either team). But what may very well get buried in the annals of time is that Sam converted two fourth downs to keep that drive alive. The first, a somewhat more pedestrian 4th-and-1, while the second was an arguably poorly-thrown ball that shouldn't have been caught.
Regardless, in both cases, the Kats converted, and the play that Ezzard made to catch that second fourth down conversion will go down in history.
What's Next for Sam Houston Football?
First of all, if you're a fan of Sam Houston, enjoy the moment! As a fan, I've had my heart broken by the Kats both in 2011 and 2012 and multiple times in some of those brutal playoff exits in the following year. That said, enjoy the journey and bask in the moment.
But once you've done that, it's time to look ahead a little bit. This fall 2021 football season will likely see Sam playing one of the toughest FCS-only schedules we've ever seen. It won't necessarily be tough from a strength-of-schedule standpoint--although playing at Central Arkansas and hosting this playoff's 3-seed Jacksonville State will bolster that resume--but it'll be tough since the Kats will have the biggest target on their back in the history of the program: National Champions. They'll get everyone's best shot, and it's important to remember that even mediocre teams can play up to their competition. As excited as I am about how this 2020 team performed and took care of business, my optimism is hedged by a healthy dose of skepticism especially knowing what's on the docket on September 25th (at UCA) and October 23rd (vs. JSU). My hope is that with the core of the National Championship team returning as well as incoming freshman and transfers, that KCK and company will re-load and be ready to step up to another level.
It's easy for fans, coaches, and players to see this National Title win as the pinnacle of a program, but that just can't be the philosophy. It should be multiple national titles.
On the national level, we can be assured that NDSU will have their quarterback situation resolved, JMU will be back and ready to avenge that loss in the semifinals, SDSU will be ready again (potentially sans Gronowski), and the rest of the nation will have their eyes on the guys in Huntsville.
Then, there's that glaring orange elephant in the room: the WAC and a move to the FBS. It's been stated--and I've got a pretty good feeling--that the move to the WAC for SHSU as well as the rest of the SLC defectors is with eyes on a future move to the FBS. Now, we don't know when that will happen nor do we know with certainty that it will. Does this national title shift the focus more towards a move to the FBS and never winning a national championship or does it shift the focus towards remaining in FCS a little longer and potentially winning more? Furthermore, if you follow college football, then you undoubtedly know of the rift between many of the Group of Five schools and the College Football Playoff, the NCAA's reluctance to allow athletes to profit off of their likeness as well as the overall shift in the atmosphere of college athletics. We won't and don't know what that landscape looks like for the FCS schools, the WAC, or if there will even be an FBS or FCS by the time Sam Houston and its WAC counterparts make a move.
As a fan, I want Bowers Stadium renovated in the worst way. The Capital Campaign is over, but too much money was earmarked for specific projects and left a lot to be desired for what would have been an excellent renovation to the Bowers West Side Complex. It's a step in the right direction that the field house is getting a massive makeover, but what will it take to get the money to get a badly-needed renovation to the home of the National Champions? Perhaps a move to the FBS is just the ticket we need to get those funds rolling but at the cost of national championship ambitions--everything has a cost.
In the end, there are plenty of uncertainties with both the present and distant future of both Bearkat football and Bearkat athletics at large. What I think we've seen, though, during this National Championship run, is that the foundation, leadership, and talent are there throughout the Bearkat football program and on the hill in the athletic department. The future for Sam Houston is bright, and I think it's unfair to hope for anything less than a successful ride for at least a couple of years, but the timeline beyond that gets a little fuzzy, a little uncertain, and perhaps a little scary.
As fans, all we can do is support the team, the athletic department, and the university in any way we can. Mostly, spend your money where you can know that it will go back to the university: buy game tickets, purchase season tickets, spend your work bonus on National Championship shirts, hats, koozies, mugs, etc., make donations to the Champions Fund, share social media posts, stay active with the Alumni Association, and above all, enjoy the ride.
What a ride it's been! Eat 'em up Kats!