With eight weeks to go before the 87th "Battle of the Piney Woods" at Reliant Stadium in Houston October 6, GoBearkats.com presents the next installment of"Great Performances" in Piney Woods history.
Sam Houston 30, Stephen F. Austin 26
Sports writers called the 1986 Sam Houston football team the "Kardiac Kats!"
Game after game, the Bearkats posted thrilling come-from-behind victories in a season full of firsts for the Sam Houston State football program.
The 1986 season was Sam Houston's first at the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision level (then known as I-AA football).
One week before the "Battle of the Piney Woods," head coach Ron Randleman's Kats had earned the program its first NCAA national top 20 ranking with an incredible upset win in Thibodaux, La.
Trailing No. 4-ranked Nicholls 31-21, Sam Houston fought back for a 41-38 victory with fullback Vernon Fulbright had scored the winning touchdown with just 1:37 remaining.
The victory put Sam Houston in the NCAA national rankings at No. 15. The Bearkats could not rest on their laurels, however. Waiting in the wings hoping to add tarnish to Sam Houston's 5-2 record was Stephen F. Austin.
Led by senior quarterback Todd Whitten, coach Jim Hess's Jacks had lost their last two encounters with the Kats. SFA's 28-21 loss to Sam Houston not only had spoiled the Jacks' opportunity for their first undisputed league title, it had also allowed the Bearkats to share the Gulf Star championship with SFA.
For additional motivation, the game marked the first Sam Houston-Stephen F. Austin meeting at the Bearkats' new 14,000-seat stadium. Then known simply as Bearkat Stadium, the facility would be renamed Elliott T. Bowers Stadium after the former university president in 1989. The Kats were 4-0 on their new home field. A capacity crowd filled the stadium to witness another "Piney Woods" showdown.
SFA struck quickly with Whitten capping a 10-play, 68-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run just 4:43 into the contest.
Three field goals by All-America kicker Billy Hayes gave Sam Houston a narrow 9-7 second quarter lead. But Whitten struck again, this time in the air with a 50-yard pass to Melvin Patterson to put the Lumberjacks up 14-9 at intermission.
The see-saw battle continued in the third period. Sam Houston opened the second half with a four minute, 11-play, 78-yard drive for Fulbright's five-yard touchdown run. A two-point conversion attempt failed, but the Kats held a 15-14 lead.
Stephen F. Austin took advantage of a Bearkat turnover for a quick 10-yard drive with Michael Horace scoring on a fourth-and-one play with 5:46 remaining in the third. SFA's two-point conversion attempt failed but the Jacks still led 20-15.
With 9:41 to play, the lead changed hands a fifth time as James Shorts tallied on a five-yard run to complete a 62-yard drive. Again, the two-point attempt failed as Sam Houston edged in front 21-20.
Less than two minutes later, SFA was back in front after Horace broke for a 53-yard run to put the Jacks up 26-21 with 7:51 remaining.
Sam Houston was forced to punt but the boot by Bart Bradley bottled the Jacks inside their own 10-yard line. A bad punt snap went out of the end zone giving the Kats two more points and the ball with 1:05 to play.
Now it was time for quarterback Reggie Lewis to take over. Playing with a tender ankle and bruised ribs, Lewis engineered yet another "Kardiac Kats" finish.
In just three plays and 31 seconds, Lewis took the Kats 60 yards for the scoring, finding sophomore tight end Ricky Eggleston for a 39-yard touchdown pass.
"Ricky made an amazing play on the touchdown catch," Randleman said. "He beat double coverage with a diving catch that has to be one of the best ever by a Sam Houston tight end."
The 30-26 victory along with an even more incredible comeback win against Southwest Texas two weeks later earned Sam Houston the Gulf Star Conference championship in the league's final year of competition.
The Kats finished the regular season 9-2 to earn their first NCAA Division I national playoff berth. The nine victories marked only the fourth time in Sam Houston football history a Kat team had won nine or more games in one year.
Sam Houston stood No. 11 in the final national rankings.
Five Bearkats were honored as All-Gulf Star first team selections - Eggleston, Hayes, Bradley, center Phillip Karasek, offensive guard Kelvin Scott and offensive tackle Brett Kaiser.
Lewis, wide receiver Keith Willis, defensive lineman Theron Harrison, linebacker Lish Adams and defensive backs Louis Gill and Carl Mims all with All-GSC second team selections.
The next year both Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin along with Southwest Texas State moved into their current league, the Southland Conference.
The next chapter in the "Battle of the Piney Woods" football rivalry sees Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin battle at Reliant Stadium in Houston Oct. 6 at 3 p.m.
Crowds of more than 25,000 have packed the lower bowl at Reliant each of the past two years and tickets are going fast.
Battle of the Piney Woods Tickets are now on sale through the university's athletic website. Fans also can purchase tickets at the Sam Houston athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House in the south end zone at Bowers Stadium or by calling ticket office at (936) 294-1729.