HOUSTON – The Sam Houston State Bearkats needed all four quarters, but got in the end zone twice late in the fourth quarter to win for the ninth straight time, 31-20, over Stephen F. Austin in the 94th Battle of the Piney Woods at NRG Stadium.
SHSU (4-2, 3-0 SLC) forced six turnovers and had a 17-10 lead early in the final period, but a pick-six by SFA’s (1-5, 1-2 SLC) Eli Jones with 10:36 to play turned the tides and gave the upstart ‘Jacks a 20-17 advantage late in the game.
But the Kats answered when Ty Brock connected with Nathan Stewart for a 45-yard score to retake the lead. Joseph Wallace then strip-sacked SFA quarterback Trae Self on the ensuing drive, forcing a fumble that set the Kats up inside the red zone. Three plays later Donovan Williams plunged into the end zone for the second time in the game to ice it.
Williams finished with a career-high 127 yards on the ground, while Stewart moved into the top 10 all-time in FCS receiving history with 134 yards and a score.
Still, the day belonged to the Bearkat defense who picked Self off three times and recovered three more fumbles. In all they would get to SFA quarterbacks for 5.0 sacks and finished with 15.0 tackles for loss, sending the ‘Jacks backwards for 62 yards.
Royce See turned in the biggest day, tying with Markel Perry for team-high honors with nine tackles. The senior also added one TFL, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and picked off a pair of passes.
Early on the ‘Jacks were having their way with the Kats, owning a 7-0 lead on the scoreboard and outgaining the SHSU 141-9 in total yards in the first 15 minutes. But from there the Kats clamped down, outgaining SFA 398-209 in the final three quarters.
A 42-yard pass from Self to Tamrick Pace set up the first SFA score of the day, a 2-yard run by Josh McGowen with 4:54 to play in the opening quarter. SFA added a 30-yard field goal by Storm Ruiz early in the second quarter to go up 10-0 before the Bearkat offense began to show signs of life.
They got a big burst from Stewart two drives later when he hauled in a 50-yard bomb from Brock, who finished with 256 yards passing on the day, to set up a 1-yard run by Williams to cut the lead to 10-7. The Kats then held SFA to just nine yards on the ‘Jacks final four drives of the half and took the lead for the first time when freshman wide receiver Noah Smith hit fellow freshman wideout Ife Adeyi for a 32-yard touchdown to give SHSU a 14-10 lead at the break.
Neither team was able to put much together in the third quarter until the Kats got the ball with 2:51 to go inside their own 5-yard line. They would proceed to push the ball deep into SFA territory, getting a big run from Williams and a 28-yard catch from Coree Compton to do so, before eventually settling for a 23-yard field goal by Connor Crow to up the lead to 17-10.
SFA answered with a scoring drive of its own, ending when Ruiz bounced in a career-long, 51-yard field goal off the crossbar to cut the lead to 17-13. Two plays later SFA got its biggest play of the game when Jones picked off Brock and raced 28 yards into the end zone to give SFA the lead back with 11:03 to play.
The teams then traded empty drives before the Kats were able to strike again. They rode the legs of Williams for 28 yards on five straight carries before Brock hooked up with Stewart again, this time from 45 yards away to cross the end zone and put the Kats back up 24-20.
The defense then stepped up again on the next play from scrimmage when Wallace surged through the line and took down Self, forcing a fumble that was recovered by See at the Lumberjack 19-yard line. Three plays later Williams rumbled into the end zone from 10 yards away for the game’s final margin.
- The Kats have now won nine Battles of the Piney Woods in a row, the longest streak in the history of the rivalry that spans back to 1923. They have not lost since a 31-28 defeat in 2010, the first game of the rivalry played at NRG Stadium.
- Nathan Stewart finished with 134 yards receiving and now has 4,301 for his career. That places him in seventh place on the all-time receiving list at the FCS level. Next on the list is New Hampshire’s RJ Harris who totaled 4,328 from 2011-14.The 134 yards was the third straight 100-yard game for Stewart and the 19th of his career.
- Donovan Williams finished with 127 yards on the ground, his second 100-yard rushing game of his career. Each have been this season.
- Royce See picked off a pair of passes, his first interceptions since having two as a sophomore in 2017. It also marks the second straight year a Bearkat has picked off two passes in the Battle of the Piney Woods as DJ Curtis had a pair of picks in 2018.
- The six takeaways were the most by a Bearkat defense in a single game since they had six in a 56-49 win in the 2013 Battle of the Piney Woods. That day they picked off two passes and recovered four fumbles.
The Bearkats will go after a 4-0 start to Southland Conference play on Saturday at Bowers Stadium when they host Lamar. Kickoff is set for 2:00 p.m.