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.