HUNTSVILLE, Texas One of the best football seasons in the history of Southern Utah University came to an end Saturday with a heartbreaking 42-39 loss to Sam Houston State in the opening round of the FCS national playoffs.
The Thunderbirds (8-4) led for the majority of the second half, but a late touchdown gave the Bearkats the advantage and eventually the victory.
Just credit Sam Houston, SUU head coach Ed Lamb said. They did a good job taking away some of the shorter passes and putting a lot of numbers in the box on the run. We tried to win over the top a couple times and we werent able to connect.
We had what we thought were some good one-on-one matchups. Credit Sam Houstons DBs for playing physical down the field and not allowing those passes to connect.
The weather conditions were wet and windy, but that didnt stop both teams from having plenty of success on offense.
Jeremiah Briscoe threw for 211 yards, including the winning 55-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, for Sam Houston State. Ridgeway Frank piled up 137 yards rushing on 29 carries and had two touchdowns, Corey Avery also ran for two TDs and Trenier Orr returned an interception for another score for Sam Houston State (9-3), which will face McNeese State in the FCS quarterfinals next Saturday.
Ammon Olsen was 33-for-58 passing for 379 yards and four touchdowns to lead Southern Utah.
After Sam Houston took an early 7-0 lead, Big Sky Conference champion SUU immediately responded with a 69-yard touchdown pass from Olsen to Brady Meason. But the Thunderbirds subsequent PAT kick was blocked.
The Bearkats scored a touchdown and a field goal to widen the gap before SUUs Malik Brown scored on a 4-yard run. However, Sam Houston State scored again to regain a two-score lead.
Then it was Southern Utahs turn, as Ty Rutledge broke off a 61-yard scoring scamper out of the Wildcat formation, and Olsen hooked up with Mike Sharp on a 36-yard TD toss to tie it up at 26-all.
Then Olsen hit Sharp again, this time on a 34-yard strike, to put the T-Birds on top 32-26 after having yet another PAT kick blocked.
Early in the third quarter, SUU defensive end James Cowser came up with a strip sack which set the stage for Olsens third TD pass of the day to Sharp, extending the Thunderbirds lead to 39-26.
Mitch Dalleys interception stopped one Sam Houston drive, but Olsen was soon intercepted himself on a pick-six by Orr that pulled the Bearkats within 39-33.
Sam Houston State then scored a safety to cut the gap to 39-35 with 8:36 left to play.
With 3:44 remaining, the Bearkats Yedidiah Louis caught a pass and broke several tackles on his way to a 55-yard touchdown play that put Sam Houston State ahead 42-39.
SUU got the ball back two more times, but turned it over on downs and then on a fumble to see its playoff hopes end.
Sharp wound up with 141 yards receiving and three touchdowns, and Meason had the other TD catch and 118 yards receiving.
On film, they showed they were very athletic, they like to blitz, they like to load the box, Olsen said of the Bearkats defense. But they also have some great DBs, so we knew we had to attack they way we could.
They made some changes at halftime that made us struggle, and youve got to credit them. But we were just a couple plays short today.
When asked about his Olsens performance, Lamb proudly said, Hes a warrior.
Matt Holley had a big game for the Thunderbirds defense, finishing with 14 solo tackles and a tackle for loss.
Despite the loss, the Big Sky champs set a school record for most consecutive wins in a season and also reached their highest rankings ever in both FCS polls.