A program revamp that began three seasons ago in Fargo, North Dakota came full circle on Sunday afternoon at Bowers Stadium.
Sam Houston allowed a 15-point lead to slip out of its grasp in the second half, but a late scoring drive and a last-minute stop allowed the Bearkats to secure a 24-20 win over defending champion North Dakota State in the FCS quarterfinals.
"You saw two heavyweights throwing punches," Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler said. "We have the second-most wins in the country the last 10 years, and they have the most wins in the country the last 10 years. ... This journey started literally on the bus ride back to the airport after they beat us in 2017."
After pulling ahead 17-2 with a touchdown drive to open the second half, Sam Houston allowed 18 unanswered points — the bulk of which came on back-to-back special teams touchdowns — to give the Bison their first lead of the day.
Sam Houston responded with a nine-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, however, with junior quarterback Eric Schmid putting the Bearkats on top for good on a six-yard run with 3:39 remaining. The scoring play was set up by a 47-yard, over-the-shoulder grab by Ife Adeyi on third down that placed the Bearkats inside the NDSU 5-yard line.
"Ife had told me earlier in the game that if we put him outside for a deep ball, he was going to run by them," Schmid said. "Whenever we got that call and it was third-and-10, I knew we needed a big play. I trusted him, and he ran by the dude and made a great catch. Once we got up in there, I knew that we needed to finish the drive. That's something we've struggled with all year, so we picked a good time to do that."
"We were just telling each other to have confidence and that we have to fight," sophomore receiver Noah Smith said of the team's message to each other during the go-ahead drive. "It was do-or-die. We all knew it was do-or-die ... adversity was gonna hit, and that was adversity for us. We could've been down but we had each other's back. That's a brotherhood."
North Dakota State was given second life on its final drive, as a pass interference call turned a defensive stop into a first-and-10 for NDSU near midfield. The Bison drove all the way down to the Sam Houston 17-yard line, but a fumbled snap followed by an incomplete pass on fourth down ended the last-minute scoring opportunity with 29 seconds remaining.
This marks the second consecutive win that the Bearkats have secured with a late defensive stand. They held off Monmouth 21-15 in their playoff opener, as Isaiah Downes pulled down an interception in the end zone with less than a minute left in regulation.
"The confidence is booming," senior defensive back Tristin McCollum said. "We're playing good defense and we want to keep our foot on the gas pedal."
Schmid completed 68% of his passes, racking up 227 yards and one touchdown through the air, while adding a team-high 36 yards and another score on the ground. Sophomore Noah Smith was Schmid's primary target, hauling in a game-high 10 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Bearkats stifled a North Dakota State offense that ran for 422 yards in its playoff opener against Eastern Washington. The Bison compiled just 139 rushing yards as a team on 43 carries, as Sam Houston extended its streak to 19 games in a row without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
The passing game was equally ineffective for NDSU. Freshman quarterback Cam Miller completed just 7-of-18 passes for 90 yards, finishing with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a QB rating of 58.7.
"We went and talked to a lot of people about how to get better at stopping the run," Keeler said. "Hats off to our defense, because that's as dominant a defensive performance as I've ever seen."
The Bearkats also won the turnover battle 3-0, with Downes and Tristin McCollum each pulling down interceptions and Markel Perry recovering a fumble that he forced.
For McCollum, who was one of four current Bearkats that played in the team's 55-13 loss to NDSU in the 2017 semifinals, Sunday's win had a particularly rewarding feel to it.
"It means so much," McCollum said. "Ever since my freshman year, that one loss was stinging the most, especially going so far and then losing in that fashion. To get the win today, it just means that we've come so far since that day — and I can't wait for this team to keep going."
Sam Houston will face the winner of North Dakota and James Madison at home next weekend.
"We're going to enjoy this for about 10 hours," Keeler said. "After that, North Dakota State doesn't exist anymore in our minds."