CHENEY — Final exams wrapped up Friday at Eastern Washington University, so it came as no surprise when a somewhat limited number of students turned out for Saturday’s Football Championship Subdivision national semifinal game with Sam Houston State.
Of course, it did come as a surprise when the student no-shows at the start of the game appeared to also include Eastern’s players.
The Eagles trailed by five touchdowns at halftime but rallied spectacularly before their season ended in a 45-42 loss at Roos Field.
“Most teams would have folded shop if they were down 35-nothing at halftime and kicking off to us,” Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. “Those guys really did a sensational job in the second half.”
The unseeded Bearkats (11-3), from Huntsville, Texas, take on top seed North Dakota State (13-1) in the FCS title game Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas. Sam Houston lost to the Bison in last year’s championship game.
The Eagles, national champions after the 2010 season, made a valiant attempt to return to Frisco despite being dominated in the first half. Backup quarterback Vernon Adams fueled a remarkable rally by throwing six touchdown passes in the second half, but the Bearkats recovered an onside kick with three minutes left and were able to run out the clock.
“We’re not into any moral victories, no matter who we’re playing,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “But I was just really, really, really proud of our guys.”
Adams, who started most of the season, replaced Kyle Padron in the second quarter and played the remainder of the game. Adams had played in one series in Eastern’s first two playoff games, but he tied the school record and FCS playoff record that Padron had tied a week earlier against Illinois State by passing for six scores.
“It was awesome to see, but also not shocking to see,” Baldwin said.
Brandon Kaufman was the primary beneficiary of Adams’ good work. Kaufman, a junior, caught nine passes for a career-high 215 yards and three touchdowns. He set an FCS single-season record with 1,850 receiving yards.
“Brandon is the best player I’ve ever played with – ever,” said Adams, sounding like a wily old veteran even though he’s a redshirt freshman.
Timothy Flanders sparked Sam Houston’s triple-option offense with 231 yards on 34 carries. The Bearkats have played 10 road games this season, and Flanders said that helped players maintain their composure when Eastern rallied.
“We had a great group of seniors that helped lead the whole team,” Flanders said.
The second-seeded Eagles (11-3) gave up a season high for points for the second consecutive game, but EWU topped Sam Houston in yards, 523-503.
Baldwin said the Bearkats did nothing that surprised the Eagles in the first half, but they executed superbly.
“They played a great ballgame ... they’ve got a great offense,” Baldwin said.
Icy winds made the 32-degree day feel even colder, but both teams were able to make sensational plays. A crowd of 7,615 watched Eastern lose at home for the first time this season after seven wins.
Zach Johnson, a senior linebacker out of Tumwater High School, led Eastern with a game-high 12 tackles. His career total of 324 tackles ranks seventh in school history.
Senior wide receivers Nicholas Edwards (Foss) and Greg Herd (Steilacoom) both caught a touchdown pass for the Eagles. Edwards finished fourth in Eastern history with 215 receptions, and Herd was ninth at 165. In career receiving yards, Edwards wound up fifth (2,634), and Herd is 10th (2,348).
“I’m hurting right now for the seniors,” said Baldwin, who starred at Curtis High.
Eastern had won five consecutive games. Sam Houston’s three-game winning streak consists of playoff wins against each of the Big Sky Conference co-champions, EWU, Montana State and Cal Poly.