CHENEY — Quarterback Brian Bell ran for two touchdowns and threw for another and Sam Houston State raced to a 35-0 halftime lead but barely held on to beat second-seeded Eastern Washington 45-42 Saturday afternoon, earning a trip to the Football Championship Subdivision championship game.
The Bearkats (11-3) face top-seeded North Dakota State, which won last year’s matchup 17-16, Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
The win over Eastern Washington (11-3) was the Bearkats’ third straight over a Big Sky Conference team in the playoffs this year and fifth straight in the past two years.
After the Bearkats dominated the first half, backup quarterback Vernon Adams tied a school record with six touchdown passes to pull the Eagles within a field goal with 3:02 to play.
However, behind Tim Flanders, who rushed for 219 yards, Sam Houston State was able to run out the clock. Flanders had 231 yards on 34 carries and the Bearkats had 503 yards of offense, 418 of which came on the ground.
Eastern had 523 yards, 481 in the air. Adams finished by completing 14 of 26 attempts for 364 yards. Brandon Kaufman had nine receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns, the first 200-yard game for the junior All-American but his 19th 100-yard game.
Kaufman, who had only two catches for 15 yards in the first half, set the FCS record for single-season yardage on his second touchdown. He went past the 1,712-yard record set by Eddie Conti of Delaware in 1998.
Kaufman finishes the season with 93 receptions for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns.
After Adams’ fourth touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, Bell engineered a five-play, 86-yard drive, completing three passes for 38 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Shane Young.
Through three quarters Sam Houston State quarterbacks were 5 of 9 for 32 yards.
Adams responded with a 4-play, 78-yard drive in 61 seconds to make it 42-35 on a 7-yard pass to Nicholas Edwards with 9:48 to play. The Bearkats got a 42-yard field goal from Miguel Antonio but after Adams was intercepted, the Eastern Washington defense held and Adams threw his sixth touchdown, a 33-yarder to Kaufman.
Bell had touchdowns of 6 and 72 yards sandwiched around a 37-yard interception return by Robert Shaw. Keshawn Hill added a 15-yard run and wide receiver Richard Sincere, playing quarterback in a wildcat formation, scored on a 6-yard run in the first half.
Until Adams had scrambles of 11 and 7 yards late in the first half, Eastern Washington had negative 1 yard rushing. Meanwhile, the Bearkats piled up 285 yards, led by Flanders with 116.
The Eagles had 155 yards through the air but in addition to the interception return, Shaw picked off Adams at the goal line late in the second quarter.
Adams threw three touchdowns in the third quarter, connecting with Greg Herd for 31 yards early and Kaufman for 22 late, followed by a 43-yarder to Ashton Clark after a successful on-side kick. He made it four possessions in a row with a 43-yarder to Kaufman two minutes into the fourth quarter. And after Bell’s touchdown pass made it five with the 7-yarder to Edwards.
The only other time these two teams played was in the 2004 playoffs in Cheney when the Bearkats rallied from 20 points down with 10 minutes to play to beat Eastern 35-34 with a touchdown and extra point on the last play of the game.
They start a home-and-home regular-season series next season in Huntsville, Texas.