The Bearkats move on to the quarterfinals and will face Montana State, a 16-10 winner over Stony Brook, on Friday at 7 p.m. (Central Time) in Bozeman, Mont. That game will be televised on ESPN2.
"It was a hard-fought win, but we knew it was going to be a four-quarter game," Sam Houston senior safety Darnell Taylor said. "That's how we play. We fought hard and came away in the end."
Despite the Bearkats forcing three turnovers and giving themselves excellent field position, it wasn't until the final few minutes that the game was decided.
Sam Houston (9-3 overall) held a slim 15-9 advantage, thanks to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Brian Bell to running back Keshawn Hill on a drive that was aided by two personal-foul penalties on the Mustangs.
If there ever was a time to put together a drive that could eat up a good chunk of the clock and also come away with points, it was then.
"Our main thing was that we just wanted to go out there, take some time off the clock and just hang on to the ball," said Bearkats running back Timothy Flanders, who finished with 101 rushing yards and became the first player to rush for more than 100 yards against Cal Poly this season.
"Our offensive coordinator, coach (Doug) Ruse, he did a great job with the game plan. Bell made some good decisions and the offensive line did a tremendous job."
Starting from their own 25-yard line, the Kats had one of their best drives of the second half, methodically moving their way down the field with a big helping of runs by Flanders as well another gift from Cal Poly (9-3).
In that possession, the Mustangs were flagged for a personal foul that handed 15 free yards to Sam Houston.
Following the 15-yard penalty, Flanders delivered big-time for the Kats on consecutive carries, pushing for 4 yards on third-and-3 from the Mustangs' 18, then gashing Cal Poly for 11 yards on the next snap to put Sam Houston inside the 5-yard line.
The Bearkats couldn't find the end zone like they did on the previous possession, but got just what they needed from kicker Miguel Antonio, who booted a clutch 26-yard field goal. That kick capped a 3-for-3 day for the senior from Lovelady and also pushed Sam Houston ahead 18-9 with just 3:18 to play.
"I thought he did a great job," Bearkats coach Willie Fritz said of his veteran kicker. "He's taken a little bit of criticism. I think a lot of people have asked me about that. I knew he was a quality kicker. He's had an outstanding season (successful on 15-of-19 field goal attempts), not just in this game. I've seen him make that in practice.
"That was a huge, huge kick. He did an excellent job of that."
Without much time, Cal Poly, with no timeouts remaining, needed to find a way to get down the field in a hurry and quickly put up points.
"We just knew to come out and play like we play. We are a big-play offense, so we know we could make it happen if we just play the way we do," Mustangs sophomore receiver Willie Tucker said. "We weren't about to put any more pressure on us. With less time, just get out there and do what we do."
After advancing to midfield, the Mustangs uncorked a bomb as one wide receiver, Ryan Taylor, found another, Tucker, down the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown. That put Cal Poly back in business, within a possession with 1:34 to go.
Unable to stop the clock on their own anymore, the Mustangs had to convert a onside kick. The kick from Bobby Zalud bounced high, but Sam Houston senior Trey Diller leapt up and came down with it to essentially seal the Bearkats' hard-fought win.
"It feels good," Flanders said. "(Grinding out a tough win) is something we knew was going to happen in this game. Our scout team did a very good job all week preparing us for this team. The game's over with now, so we're moving forward."
To put themselves in position to advance to the next round, the Bearkats needed to find a way to stop Cal Poly's tricky triple-option offense, which entered the game with the FCS' third-best rushing offense (333.27 yards per game).
"They were tough. I don't think we've seen (the triple-option) since my freshman year and that was three years ago," Taylor said. "Those guys came out to play and they played hard.
"They have a good team. They played good, we just played a little bit better."
While the typically stingy Sam Houston defense gave up 224 yards on the ground off 56 attempts (4.0-yard average), the Bearkats stepped up big when it mattered.
Twice, Cal Poly had moved inside of Sam Houston's 10-yard line, but the Kats buckled down and held the Mustangs to a pair of field goals.
"It was definitely frustrating to work hard to get down there and end up with three points," said Cal Poly quarterback Andre Broadus, who finished with 54 rushing yards and 113 yards through the air on 6-of-12 passing.
"They had a good scheme against our offense. That's on us. We've got to be able to get in the end zone no matter if they're prepared for us or not. It's on them, too. They had a good scheme. Unfortunately, we had to kick field goals."
Special teams also played a huge part in Sam Houston's victory.
On Cal Poly's third possession of the game, the Mustangs were forced to punt after a three-and-out early in the second quarter. Sam Houston senior Vincent Dotson got around the outside blocker and got a hand on Zalud's punt. The ball bounced end-over-end and into the end zone. Dotson and senior Robert Shaw gave chase for it, trying to recover it for a touchdown, but neither could fall on it and the ball rolled through the back of the end zone for a safety.
Then just before halftime, Bearkats punter Matt Foster skied a punt from near midfield, but Mustangs returner Chris Nicholls couldn't field it and Sam Houston senior Kenneth Jenkins recovered it. That gave the Kats the ball on the Cal Poly 7-yard line with less than a minute to play before intermission. The Bearkats came away with three points on a 32-yard field goal from Antonio to give Sam Houston an 8-0 halftime edge.
Sam Houston also wouldn't be advancing to the next round without Antonio's three field goals as well as Diller's recovery on the onside kick.
"I thought we played excellent in the kicking game," Fritz said. "We were 3-for-3 on field goals, obviously the clutch one there in the end. We had very good kickoff coverage. That was a big play after the (final) field goal. We kicked off and I think we got them on the 20-yard line kicking into the wind. There was good coverage there.
"Excellent job on the onside kick. We work on it all the time and it was the first one we've had all season. Besides the first punt by Matt, I thought he really punted well and we did a good job with the coverage.
"Overall, a really nice job in the kicking game."
The Kats now will pack their bags for Bozeman, Mont., as they'll face No. 3 seed Montana State, which defeated Stony Brook 16-10, in the quarterfinals Friday night.
Sam Houston, which made it to the FCS national championship game last season, met the Bobcats in the 2011 quarterfinals and cruised to a 49-13 victory at Bowers Stadium.
"I'm going to enjoy this victory tonight. (Sam Houston State athletic director Bobby) Williams is going to let me know who we're going to play and we'll make plans from there," said Fritz, not knowing who the Kats' opponent would be at the time of the postgame press conference