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December 13, 2012

BEARKAT FOOTBALL — Looking back: Bearkats pull off improbable comeback in 2004 quarterfinal meeting at Eastern Washington

HUNTSVILLE — As the Bearkats are finishing up their preparations for Saturday’s showdown in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals against Eastern Washington, it’s hard to find many people around Huntsville or Cheney, Wash., who don’t recall the first and only time these two teams squared off in 2004.

In frigid temperatures and on a partially frozen field, the Bearkats couldn’t put up much of a fight for most of the game and found themselves trailing by three touchdowns on two separate occasions in the second half. In the final quarter, the offense came alive and the defense came up with a pair of huge stops to set the stage for Sam Houston’s comeback.

“It’s kind of funny. When I first heard we were playing Eastern Washington, a lot of memories started going through my head,” said Vincent Cartwright, who was a receiver for the Bearkats in 2004 and now works for the Sam Houston State University admissions office as an admissions counselor and recruiter.

“A lot of those were great memories because that was one of the most exciting games I ever played in my life, just because of the fact that we were down by so much. We just had to dig inside of ourselves to win that game. The funny thing about it is that I never remember thinking that the game was over. The whole entire time, I just felt like we had a chance.”

Through much of the first half, the Bearkats offense struggled to get off the ground, accumulating just 123 yards of total offense (101 yards on 8-of-17 passing from quarterback Dustin Long and 22 rushing yards). On the other hand, Eastern Washington had taken a 13-0 lead at halftime, thanks to touchdown runs by Lars Slind and Darius Washington.

With the ball to start the second half, the Kats started to find success on offense for the first time all game. The Bearkats picked their way down the field, getting five first downs before wide receiver Jarrod Fuller scored on an end around to finally get Sam Houston on the scoreboard and pull the Kats to within 13-6.

The Eagles responded with their own touchdown as they hit several big plays before Eastern Washington quarterback Erik Meyer ran the ball in on a quarterback sneak to extend the lead to 20-7.

On the next offensive snap for Sam Houston, Long was intercepted by Eagles linebacker Joey Cwik and Eastern Washington scored on the following play on a 39-yard run by Washington. That put the Eagles on top 27-7 with a little less than six minutes to go in the third quarter.

Six plays into the Bearkats’ next possession, Sam Houston struck again as Long found the dependable Jason Mathenia near the sideline. After coming back for the ball to catch it, Mathenia spun to the outside of the defender and sprinted up the sideline 69 yards for a TD to put the Kats back to within a pair of scores.

Just like they had done for Sam Houston’s previous touchdown, the Eagles found the end zone again on a 9-yard run by Washington on the first play of the fourth quarter to take a 34-14 lead with 14:54 to play.

If the Bearkats were going to win that game, they needed some quick scores as well as some defensive stops.

In less than four minutes, the Kats had found the end zone again as Long hit tight end Corey Roberts across the middle of the field and the junior churned 34 yards for a touchdown to pull Sam Houston to within 34-21 with 11:04 to go.

“I knew all we needed was two stops,” said Paul Donelson, who was an All-American safety with the Bearkats and currently coaches football and basketball at Spring Westfield High School.

On the next possession, Eastern Washington had driven into Bearkats territory, but had its drive stall before getting past the 35-yard line and had to punt.

“Once we stopped them that first time, I knew the football gods were on our side,” Donelson said.

With only 7:17 to work with and still needing two touchdowns, the Kats went into desperation mode.

On the next possession, the Bearkats twice were down to a fourth down, but found a way to convert it for a first down to keep the drive alive. On the Eagles’ 8, running back Robert Garmon found a hole up the middle and ran it all the way to the end zone to get Sam Houston to within 34-28 with 3:34 to play.

Sam Houston then tried an onside kick, but it was recovered by Chris Cwik on the Bearkats’ 42-yard line. The Eagles moved the chains on third-and-7 from the 39 on a 13-yard completion from Meyer to speedy receiver Eric Kimble. On three straight rushing attempts, Eastern Washington could only get down to the 20-yard line.

The Eagles were preparing to set up for a game-clinching 37-yard field goal by Skyler Allen when Donelson called an audible for the special teams.

“Every field goal, every extra point, the kick was low. When it got down to that point, I just thought we needed someone who could block this kick,” Donelson said.

Donelson then went up to assistant coach Joe Tumpkin and pleaded with him to put in Cartwright, who hadn’t played on the field goal block unit all season, to help block the kick to keep the Kats’ comeback chances alive.

“A group of us always played basketball, that’s what we did in our free time,” Donelson said. “Vince always had a 40- to 42-inch vertical. He could jump out of the gym. Plus, he was around 6-4 or 6-5.

“We had almost blocked a couple of kicks. We knew we needed it. It was a desperate moment. I knew that if it was another low kick, Vince was going to block it.”

Cartwright had a good idea of where he wanted to line up so he could be in just the right spot in order to put a hand on the ball.

“I was excited to get in there and jump and block and do what I can for the team,” Cartwright said. “They got down for the field goal and I’m on the sideline and they said, ‘Vince, come on, come on,’ so I got out there and Paul said, ‘Hey, line up right here, line up right here.’ I had already made my mind up where I was going to line up, but we just so happened to have that same kind of mind-frame. He got me lined up and I just remember jumping as high as I can.”

Like all of the others, the kick was low and Cartwright had jumped high enough that the ball actually hit him in the chest to come away with the much-needed block and give the ball back to the Kats with a chance to win the game.

“I jumped so high the ball actually hit me right (in the chest). That was just exciting,” Cartwright said. “I never played a part of special teams in that phase of it, but just being able to come through with a big play like that was a big feeling.”

With 43 seconds to play and no timeouts, the Bearkats had to navigate 75 yards in order to come up with the winning score.

“As soon as we blocked it, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were going to win the game. Not one person doubted that we were fixing to go and win this game,” Donelson said.

That set up Sam Houston’s memorable drive.

The Bearkats had some trouble getting off the ground as they only got nine yards on their first three plays and faced a fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line with 25 seconds to go.

Long found Roberts on a crossing route and the two connected for a 12-yard gain to move the chains and also stop the clock with 15 seconds to go.

That’s when the Long-Mathenia show began to take off. All Eastern Washington needed to do was protect the final 54 yards, so the Eagles went into a prevent defense and gave Mathenia plenty of room to make catches.

Mathenia’s first reception was for 12 yards to put the Bearkats in Eagles territory at the 42 with 12 seconds left. Then, Mathenia caught another pass for 19 yards and got out of bounds at the 23 with seven seconds remaining.

The Bearkats took a chance and didn’t go to the end zone. Instead, Long hit Mathenia near the sideline again for a 16-yard pass to put Sam Houston at the 7 with only two seconds to play. There was only time for one final play.

“I would have to say that was the most nervous I was the whole entire time,” Cartwright said. “I thought that it may be a win-or-lose situation because it wasn’t any time on the clock. Again, I was still confident.”

Almost as soon as the ball was snapped, Mathenia beat the defender and made a move toward the middle of the end zone on a slant. Long easily found him open and hit him in stride to tie the game at 34.

Bearkats kicker Lance Garner booted the extra point through the middle of the uprights and the celebration was on for Sam Houston, while many Eastern Washington players and coaches fell to their knees in disbelief and agony.

“I don’t really think about it. People have asked me and my players about it this week, but most of my players were in the fourth or fifth grade when it happened,” said Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin, who was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 2004.

“I’ll be honest with you, it might be one of the worst losses I’ve had as a player or a coach. It may be number one. We were up 34-14 and we had been on the good end of football. Once we kick off Saturday, it’s over. To be perfectly honest, it was a tough one.”

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