By Tom Waddill / Huntsville Item

The Bearkats looked like the No. 1 team in the country on Saturday. Sam Houston's defense made a bunch of big stops, the offense hit the jackpot a few times and special teams, well, let's just say those guys were extra special.

Fired up and ready, the top-ranked Bearkats blocked a field goal attempt on the last play of the first half, then after Montana State scored early in the third quarter, SHSU return man Brandon Closner raced 82 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff to break the Bobcats' back.

The unbeaten Bearkats (13-0) tacked on three more touchdowns and rolled into the semifinal round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with a 49-13 thrashing of Montana State. SHSU will face Montana on either Friday or Saturday at Bowers Stadium with a spot in the FCS national championship game on the line.

"This is a long time coming," former Bearkat Ross Rogers said standing behind the back rail at Bowers Stadium while watching the game with one of his Sam Houston teammates, Beto Garza. "I've been coaching in this area forever and I've always expected Sam Houston to do this. We all knew the Bearkats could, and should be able to be this good."

Rogers, an SHSU Hall of Honor member who coached for years at A&M Consolidated and Harker Heights high schools, was a finalist for the Bearkats' top football job when Willie Fritz was hired to take over the program in 2009.

On Saturday as the Bearkats began pulling away from Montana State in the third quarter, Rogers and Garza said they've become big fans of Fritz and his young Bearkats bunch. Like the fans who were hollering around them, Rogers and Garza are all in for this ride.

"Willie's done a great job. We support him 100 percent and want to see him win it all," Rogers said. "To have the crowds here like we do today makes me really proud to be a Bearkat."

More than 9,000 fans, a few from Montana but most from Huntsville, Houston and other parts of the Lone Star State, made their way to Huntsville on Saturday for the quarterfinal playoff game that kicked off at 11 a.m. ESPN was here televising the game to the rest of the country.

"We're on national TV, we're on ESPN," said James Leyva, a senior at Sam Houston and a rabid member of the Kat Krazies.

Leyva and his buddies painted themselves orange for the occasion and stood on the front row of the student section.

"This is the first time I can remember us playing on national TV," added Leyva, who proudly wore on his chest the final "N" in BEARKAT NATION. "We're going to the semifinals for the first time in seven years."

What makes this Bearkat team so special? The Kat Krazies have a theory.

"It's a team - they play as a team," sophomore kinesiology major Nicco Martinez said. "That and they play defense."

The Bearkats definitely do that. On Saturday, they gave up 349 total yards to a Montana State team that was ranked No. 1 coming into the final week of the regular season. But after the Bobcats cut SHSU's lead to eight early in the third quarter, Sam Houston's defense tightened and held Montana State to 78 yards the rest of the way.

Over that same stretch, the Bearkat offense kicked into high gear. Quickly, SHSU turned a Daxton Swanson interception into a touchdown. Then after a three-and-out possession by the Bobcats, sophomore Torrance Williams broke loose for a 56-yard scoring run to make it 42-13 midway through the third period.

"This team's chemistry works," Leyva said while celebrating one of the Bearkats' many big plays.

Rogers and Garza believe the Bearkats have enough talent to win it all this season. What's better, they think this may be the start of something that lasts for a long, long time.

"We're number one right now, but we want the Bearkats to finish number one," said Garza, who played at Sam Houston from 1972-74. "This will be fantastic for recruiting in the future."

"Yeah, and we could attract big crowds like this for years to come," added Rogers. "This team is showing this can be done at Sam Houston. Where we are, 60 miles from Houston with the kind of talent playing football all over this area, this can be done and should be done at Sam Houston."