FRISCO — After riding late defensive stands to victory in their first three playoff games, the Sam Houston Bearkats leaned on their offense to secure the biggest win in program history on Sunday afternoon at Toyota Stadium.
With 16 seconds left and the Bearkats trailing by four, Eric Schmid squeezed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ife Adeyi between a trio of South Dakota State defenders to lift Sam Houston to a 23-21 victory — and the first FCS National Championship in program history.
"I don't know if it really clicked yet ... I'm kind of still in shock," Schmid said of the emotions following his touchdown pass to Adeyi, who finished with five receptions for 73 yards. "I was just elated really, knowing that we went down and picked up the slack when we needed to. But right now, I just can't even express my emotions."
"It was a bullet. I mean, he threw a bullet, and right into Ife's chest," Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler said. "He wasn't going to chance that thing going anywhere else. It went right in his chest, and it was a great, great play."
The Bearkats are the first school in Texas to win a national title at the FCS level.
"There's a lot of people who say, 'We want to win a National Championship.' There are few institutions that do what is needed to do to win a National Championship," said Keeler, who joined the Bearkats in 2014. "That's what attracted me to Sam Houston. I saw Willie (Fritz) got really close — in four years, he got there twice — and I was like, 'This is a place you can do this.'"
Schmid passed for 209 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, while adding 54 yards on the ground. Jequez Ezzard hauled in a season-high 10 catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Bearkats' aerial attack, with no reception proving more pivotal than his final one.
The graduate transfer from Howard, who was voted the Most Outstanding Player, kept his team's championship hopes alive with a five-yard catch on fourth down in the final minute to set up the game-winning score. Schmid also picked up a fourth-down conversion with a nine-yard run during the Bearkats' 16-play, 65-yard scoring drive that secured the victory.
Junior running back Ramon Jefferson had 96 rushing yards on 16 carries to lead Sam Houston on the ground.
"I can't say enough about him because he's a quiet guy that just goes out there and works every week," Schmid said of Ezzard. "He's an extremely big playmaker for us. I can count on him any time to make the play, and that's what he did today.
"He kept us in it and kept us rolling as an offense, so having a guy like that was really nice to have out there. But props to everybody on the offense. I mean, the offensive line battled the whole game, running backs did good, and all the other receivers made plays when they needed to."
Heavy rain resulted in five combined fumbles in the first 15 minutes, with lightning causing a 74-minute delay with 8:25 left in the second quarter. Sam Houston, which fell behind 7-0 in the opening minutes, tied the game before the break on a 35-yard touchdown reception by Ezzard 3:44 into the second quarter.
The Bearkats didn't miss a beat once play resumed, with Ezzard tacking on another score just before halftime, and Seth Morgan drilling a career-long, 45-yard field goal in the final minute of the third quarter to stretch their lead to 17-7. However, trailing by two scores with less than 14 minutes to go, the Jackrabbits — who lost starting quarterback Mark Gronowski to a leg injury on the opening drive of the game — clawed their way back into the contest behind a dominant fourth quarter from freshman running back Isaiah Davis.
Davis — who rushed for 178 yards three touchdowns, snapping the Bearkats' streak of 20 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher — compiled 139 yards on four carries in the fourth quarter. He closed the gap down to three on a 28-yard run with 13:12 remaining, before putting SDSU up 21-17 on a bulldozing 85-yard scamper with 5:41 left.
Unfortunately for the Jackrabbits, not much else was working on offense, as the rest of the team mustered just 171 yards with an average of 3.9 yards per play. Freshman safety Braiden Clopton racked up a game-high 10 tackles for the Bearkats, while junior linebacker Quentin Brown pulled down an interception to go along with six tackles, a forced fumble and one tackle for loss.
"It was definitely a thought, but we knew we still had five minutes on the clock that we had to hold up," Davis said when asked if he felt the Jackrabbits were about to win the game after his go-ahead touchdown run. "Coach talked about it several times, it was, 'Who's going to make more plays?'"
Staring down a potential double-digit collapse, the Bearkats rallied for their third consecutive second-half comeback. Even with a late deficit and time to make a comeback slipping away, Keeler always felt confident his team could pull out the win — in large part due to Schmid's calming presence behind center.
"Right after the James Madison game, (offensive coordinator) Ryan Carty met with Eric and said, 'I'm riding you in the National Championship. You have three months to recover. And Eric goes, 'I know. Ride me,'" Keeler said.
"We obviously had a lot of run game called up for Eric. He took one in the mouth, and he was spitting up blood. He turned his ankle, and we banged a time-out and then he got it wrapped up ... but you talk about a warrior and you talk about a guy who just is just so calm under pressure and just doesn't panic. I think that's why a lot of us felt that we were going to be fine on that last drive, because we have a trigger man that is capable — not only physically, but emotionally — to make that last drive."
Sunday's win marked Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler's 24th career FCS playoff victory, passing legendary Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel for the most all-time. Keeler, who won a national title at Delaware during the 2003 season, also becomes the first coach to win FCS championships at multiple schools.
"It's always about the players," Keeler said. "I was blessed to win one as a player, and I just know how that just bonds you together for the rest of your lives. So to me, this is really about the players and less about the coach. But I am very proud to be the only person ever to win national championships at two different institutions at the FCS level. It just kind of shows that I do a really good job of putting together a team.
"I have a phenomenal staff. This staff is incredible. Just like my Delaware staff. And I have great players. We had a great defense in '03, and I had a warrior at quarterback, just a warrior. Reminds you a little bit of this team here because I've got a warrior quarterback."
As for the Sam Houston players, Sunday marked the first Division I national championship for all of them — a surreal realization that, for many, is still hard to fully comprehend.
"It's still surreal," senior defensive lineman Joe Wallace said. "I just know that right now I'm feeling very blessed to be a part of this. Right now I'm still in shock. It's hard for me to even comprehend what just happened. It's a blessing."