Secondary bends but doesn't break
The Bearkats just didn't know how busy they would be.
As it turned out, the Lumberjacks tested Sam Houston's pass defense 76 times. SFA quarterback Brady Attaway compiled a career-high 545 passing yards and six touchdowns, just one shy of his career touchdown record in a single game.
That meant a lot of opportunities went in the direction of the Bearkat secondary - opportunities for both the Jacks' offense and the Kats' defense to make plays.
"They're a passing team. That's what SFA does," Bearkats cornerback Bookie Sneed said. "They have pretty good wideouts so we were expecting (this). They really started throwing a lot at the end. We just buckled down and got the job done."
SFA managed to score a pair of touchdowns within 27 seconds spanning from the end of the first quarter to the start of the second, due to a pair of back-to-back, uncharacteristic fumbles by Sam Houston running backs Timothy Flanders and Keshawn Hill.
Those turnovers resulted first in a 30-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Gambel with less than a minute to go in the first quarter, then a 27-yard toss to De'Vante Lacy in the first minute of the second.
Just like that, Sam Houston was down 14-3, but there was plenty of football left.
At one point, Saturday's game resembled the first Piney Woods matchup at Reliant Stadium two years ago when then-SFA quarterback Jeremy Moses torched the Bearkats' young secondary. But the momentum soon shifted in Sam Houston's favor.
Attaway made a throw across the middle of the field, but safety Darnell Taylor was the only target in sight. Taylor returned the interception 27 yards to set up the Bearkats with excellent field position on the Lumberjacks' 23-yard line. The touchdown on that drive ignited a run for Sam Houston of 20 unanswered points.
After Miguel Antonio's field goal trimmed the SFA lead to just one point, perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game was made by Sneed. With the Lumberjacks in the red zone, the junior out of Conroe jumped an out route and took the ball back 92 yards for a touchdown, the longest return on an interception in SHSU history.
"It was an out to the field and honestly I was like, 'There is no way these guys are going to throw an out to the field,'" Sneed said. "I was able to, as Coach (Willie) Fritz says, 'hard man focus' and at the last minute I looked back and saw the ball and just made a play on it. Once I got it in my hands, it was just a race to the end zone, and I made it."
Sneed said that was a monumental momentum shift for the Bearkats, which only echoed what SFA head coach J.C. Harper said earlier in the postgame press conference.
The Lumberjacks were so dominant to start the game, Sam Houston didn't log a first down until the second quarter and had just 22 yards of total offense in the opening period.
SFA wideout Cordell Roberson still had a record-setting performance, despite the grit of Sam Houston's defense. Roberson became just the fifth receiver in Southland history to grab 200 or more career receptions with his 14 catches Saturday.
Sam Houston cornerback Daxton Swanson had chances to inch closer to the school interception record, but the one he pulled down against SFA was called back on a pass interference penalty.
Fritz admitted after the game that the Kats can be difficult to officiate because of their physicality, but it's that kind of effort that makes them it so difficult to beat.
Eventually, the Lumberjacks had to abandon the running game completely. They ran the ball just six times for 23 yards Saturday, all in the first half. Part of that is the Jacks' style of play, while the rest can be attributed to playing from behind after Sam Houston made its rally.
"We had to earn everything we get," Harper said.
So did Sam Houston.