ABILENE – After a quarter of play it looked like the No. 4 Sam Houston State Bearkats would cruise to its sixth straight win. Turns out, it would not be that simple.
The Bearkats squandered a 24-0 first quarter lead and needed some late-game dramatics to pull off a 44-35 win at Abilene Christian on Saturday at Anthony Field at Wildcat Stadium.
After ACU (2-8, 2-6 SLC) had taken a 35-31 on a touchdown with just 5:37 to play, the Bearkats (9-1, 7-1 SLC) came right back to retake the lead just four plays later on a 15-yard score to Yedidiah Louis. Then, after a big defensive stop, Davion Davis put the final nail in the coffin with a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown with just 3:32 to go.
The eventual game-winning catch for Louis capped a career night for the senior, who finished with 11 catches for a career-high 187 yards and two touchdowns. But it was the special teams play that turned out to be the difference in a game that was played in a consistent 20-mph wind throughout.
The big play was Davis’ second punt return touchdown of the year to seal the win, but the Kats also added a blocked field goal in the third quarter and a big stop by Jordan Brown on an ACU fake-punt try in the opening quarter.
Jeremiah Briscoe threw for 350 yards and a season-high five touchdowns, two each to both Louis and Davis. The wide receiver pair each now have 26 touchdown catches for their career, one shy of the school record of 27 held by Matt Dominguez.
The defense got in on the action too, picking off four passes, the most by the Kats since they picked off four in the 2011 Battle of the Piney Woods. The Kats also picked up five sacks and seven tackles for loss, including one early in the game from P.J. Hall that was the 81st of his stellar career.
It was a record-setting night for the Bearkat all-American as that tackle for loss gave him sole possession of the FCS record for tackles for loss, while his third-quarter block of an ACU field goal tie set a new school record with his 13th kick block of his career.
The Kats finished with 390 yards of offense, but had to do it primarily through the air as the Wildcat defense held Sam Houston to just 30 yards on the ground. They needed every bit of it to combat the Wildcat offense led by quarterback Luke Anthony who threw for five touchdowns of his own on 67 pass attempts for the day.
HOW IT HAPPENED IN THE FIRST HALF
Sam Houston rolled up 178 yards in the first quarter, staking itself to a 24-0 lead with scores on four of its first five drives of the game. After a quick stop of the Wildcats on the opening drive of the game the Kats went up 3-0 on a 24-yard field goal from Tre Honshtein.
Justin Johnson then picked off Anthony on the ensuing drive and set the Kats up at the Wildcat five-yard line. It took Sam Houston just one play to get into the end zone as Briscoe hooked up with Ragan Henderson to make it a 10-0 Bearkat lead.
Two drives later Briscoe found Davis for a 17-yard score and after another defensive stop Louis found the end zone from 32 yards out to push the lead to 24-0.
But things did not come so easily in the second quarter as the Kats turned back into the wind. The teams traded stalled drives for the first eight minutes of the quarter until ACU finally got on the board when Anthony found Trevor Crain for a three-yard score to cap an eight-play drive with 6:38 left in the half.
An interception by Derick Roberson off a deflected pass by Chris Stewart set up a short field for the Kats two drives later, but the Kats could not convert. The deflection was part of a big night for Stewart who finished with six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two hurries.
That was the last scoring chance for the Kats who took a still-commanding 24-7 lead into the locker room.
HOW IT HAPPENED IN THE SECOND HALF
The Kats did not waste any time upping their lead early in the third quarter. Freshman Jaylen Thomas set it up with his first career interception, returning an Anthony pass back to the Wildcat 43. Sam Houston needed just four plays to put it in the end zone as Briscoe found Davis on the right side of the field for an 18-yard score that pushed the lead to 31-7.
But then the Wildcats began to get going. An interception off a deflected pass from Briscoe set up a five-yard touchdown pass with 10:22 left in the quarter and three drives Anthony hit Justin Miller from 27 yards out for another touchdown that made it a 31-21 Bearkat lead.
The Kats could not had a chance to likely put the game away early in the fourth quarter when they penetrated inside the ACU five-yard line, but turned it over after coming up short on a fourth-down try at the Wildcat three. ACU proceeded to march the ball right down the field, using 12 plays to go 97 yards and make it a 31-28 game with just 8:06 go to on a three-yard touchdown pass from Anthony to Carl Whitley.
ACU then got a quick stop and went to work again with running back Tracy James setting up the go-ahead score with a 62-yard run on first down inside the Bearkat red zone. Three plays later Troy Grant hauled in a touchdown score, giving ACU its first lead of the game at 35-31.
But the lead would last less than two minutes.
After a short kickoff the Bearkats went immediately to work. A 20-yard completion to Louis put the ball inside the ACU 34 and after a rush from Corey Avery and a pass interference call, Sam Houston quickly had the ball at the ACU 15. Briscoe then lofted a pass toward the right corner of the end zone and Louis came down with it, surging the Bearkats back in front 37-35 after a failed point-after try.
The Bearkat defense then forced three consecutive incompletions, forcing ACU to punt it away to punt it away with just over 3:30 to go. But Sean Laryea’s punt was fielded on the fly by Davis and the junior went untouched through the coverage into the end zone to give the Kats a 44-35 advantage.
ACU had one last chance to do something and after a 39-yard pass from Anthony to Josh Fink, found itself at the Bearkat 10 with a minute to play. But two plays later Daniel Adams picked off the fourth pass of the night for the Sam Houston defense to clinch it.
The Bearkats will close out its regular season on Saturday, Nov. 18, at home when it hosts Houston Baptist at Bowers Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. and will be aired on ESPN3.