Sam Houston wins FCS title with late TD over South Dakota State

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FRISCO, Texas – The way Sam Houston handled everything in the longest and most unusual college football season, coach K.C. Keeler felt it was fitting that the Bearkats got their first FCS national title with a last-minute touchdown after waiting out a lengthy weather delay.

Eric Schmid‘s third touchdown pass was a 10-yarder to Ife Adeyi with 16 seconds left, and Sam Houston, following two fourth-down conversions on that final drive, beat top-seeded South Dakota State 23-21 on a rain-drenched Sunday.

“It just showed such character by our kids. You’re talking about the ultimate game and you have to make one last drive,” Keeler said. “It’s really a special group when you consider this thing started in June and we had no idea when this thing would ever end. You know, we decided not to play a fall season. … It’s been an emotion draining year, a physically draining year.”

Jequez Ezzard caught two touchdowns for No. 2 seed Sam Houston (10-0) after he had an early 63-yard punt return for a TD wiped out by an illegal block. His 5-yard catch on fourth-and-3 extended the final 16-play, 65-yard drive, after Schmid’s 9-yard run on an earlier fourth-and-1.

Keeler, in his seventh season at Sam Houston, got his record 24th FCS playoff victory, and became the first coach to win FCS titles at multiple schools. He coached his alma mater Delaware to the 2003 title.

South Dakota State (8-2) led 21-17 on freshman Isaiah Davis‘ third TD run, an 85-yarder with 5:41 left. Davis, who finished with 178 yards rushing on 14 carries, went down the sideline in front of the Jackrabbits bench, eluding half of the defense before breaking free to the end zone.

“We were this close,” Davis said. “We watched them celebrate, raise the trophy up, and we know what it takes. You know, 170-something practices, and came up short one play.”

It was the first title game appearance for South Dakota State and coach John Stiegelmeier, who has coached his alma mater for 24 seasons. The Jackrabbits lost dual-threat freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski to a left leg injury on the opening series of the game.

“We didn’t have to play in the spring, we got to play in the spring. We embraced it,” Stiegelmeier said. “How should our fans remember this team? They should remember a bunch of guys that bonded together and gave everything they had.”

Ezzard had a 69-yard TD catch and an 80-yard punt return for a score when the Bearkats overcame a 21-point halftime deficit in a 38-35 win in the semifinals against No. 3 seed James Madison, the only team other than eight-time champion North Dakota State to win the FCS title the past nine seasons. Sam Houston in the quarterfinal round eliminated the Bison, who won the title the last three years.

Ezzard, who had 10 catches for 108 yards, put the Bearkats up 14-7 with his 15-yard TD, when he was wide open in the end zone. That occurred shortly after the game resumed following a 74-minute delay because of lightning. The halftime break was shortened to three minutes.

“It wasn’t a shocker for us because we’ve dealt with stuff like that all year,” said Schmid, who finished 20-of-37 passing for 209 yards. “We were kind of joking in the locker room like it’s got to be this way for us to win.”

Before the stoppage, Ezzard had a tying 35-yard TD when he made the catch behind the line near the left sideline, then cut back and broke a tackle before scoring near the right corner of the end zone.

The weather delay came in the final game of a season pushed into the spring, and ending in mid-May instead of January, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Next season kicks off in only 3 1/2 months.

The game started in a steady rain before getting stopped with 8:25 left in the second quarter because of lightning from the same weather system that impacted the final round of the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson tournament in McKinney, Texas, less than 10 miles away. There were tornado warnings south of the area. The rain had stopped when play resumed, and the sun even broke through the clouds.

Schmid couldn’t handle a high snap on Sam Houston’s opening drive, and it was recovered by Tolu Ogunrinde at Bearkats 41. That led to a 1-yard score by Davis, who early in the fourth quarter broke three tackles on a 28-yard TD.

FANS IN THE STANDS

There was a limited capacity crowd of 7,840 at Toyota Stadium, with both teams well-represented at the home of MLS team FC Dallas. Sam Houston’s campus in Texas is about 200 miles south of the stadium, and South Dakota State is about 875 miles to the north.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.