People were calling it the biggest regular season, non-conference game in Sam Houston State football history.
No. 4 Sam Houston State hosted No. 2 Eastern Washington Saturday in a rematch of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs semifinal round of 2012, which the Bearkats pulled away with a 45-42 win.
There had been other major events before at Elliot T. Bowers Stadium.
The Kats in 2004 hosted No. 1 Montana and handed the Grizzlies a 41-29 loss in the SHSU program’s first win over a top-ranked opponent. But the Kats weren’t ranked going into the game, and the win was a pleasant surprise for Bearkat fans.
On Sept. 24, 1994, the Kats welcomed Alcorn State’s Steve McNair and a nationally televised ABC audience to Bowers Stadium and posted a 48-23 victory. That was a highly-anticipated game because of McNair’s college career, and the understanding that the Houston Oilers could select him with one of the top overall picks in the NFL Draft.
KSAM 101.7 personality Kooter Roberson said he remembers professional athletes showing up to Bowers for the Alcorn State game, including former Houston Rockets forward Robert Horry, who went on to participate in seven NBA championships.
But neither SHSU nor Alcorn State had the national cache that these 2013 Kats and Eastern Washington came in with Saturday.
“It might just be proof that the football culture here has done a complete 180,” Roberson said. “This is the biggest regular season game in Bowers Stadium history.”
Eastern Washington earned its No. 2 national ranking with an upset victory over No. 25 FBS team Oregon State. The win earned EWU instant creditability and notice for FCS across the nation. And the Eagles were making their first visit ever to the Lone Star state.
“It’s huge because you’ve got all the elements. For one, you’ve got the built-in promotion from Bearkat Family Weekend. So you automatically have folks seeing the event for the first time.”
SHSU Athletic Director Bobby Williams discussed the difficulty of scheduling home-and-home series with FCS peers. Most FCS schools are east of the Mississippi River and with Bearkats’ recent success, it’s been a struggle to get visitors to play at Bowers Stadium.
“I think it’s really good because we’ve played them twice in the playoffs,” Williams said. “Now we’re playing them a home-and-home, then we’re going to play them in basketball. It’s kind of becoming a nice thing for our fans.”
The Kats are back-to-back Southland Conference champions and FCS finalists. Eastern Washington is a team that could stand in their way, just like it did a year ago. Saturday’s game, however, was indication that Sam Houston football is still on a quest to make history nationwide.
The game lived up to the hype as the Bearkats won 49-34, despite an 80-minute lightning delay before kickoff. Fans didn’t go too far either, posting a season-high attendance record of 8,621.
SHSU will go on the road in 2014 to play Eastern Washington.
“You get a chance to have big home games every once in a while, especially when you’re doing a home-and-home series,” said David Paitson, associate athletic director of external operations. “Bringing a top-flight team like Eastern Washington is really kind of a privilege for us to have. When you play the big BCS schools, you’re always going to play those (on the road). But playing Stephen F. Austin at Reliant Stadium, and this game right here, these are highlights for us on the home schedule.”
The Bearkats, however, cannot rest on their laurels. The quest for a third straight Southland title begins in two weeks with the Homecoming matchup with Lamar at Bowers Stadium.
Saturday, Nov. 2, in Houston at Reliant Stadium, the Kats face SFA in the 88th “Battle of the Piney Woods.” And road games with nationally ranked McNeese State and Central Arkansas loom.
Tickets for all remaining home games plus the “Battle of the Piney Woods” are on sale now online at www.gobearkats.com . The Sam Houston athletic ticket office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Ron Mafrige Field House. The ticket office telephone number is (936) 294-1729.