Thursday night was a historic one for football in the town of Huntsville, TX. Elliott T. Bowers Stadium opened its gates for the first time since Sam Houston rose to FBS status. The Bearkat faithful funneled into the stadium to commemorate the occasion, attaining a sellout crowd of 14,566 for the program’s first-ever CUSA matchup.
But despite leading for nearly the entirety of the game, Sam Houston was unable to pull through in its inaugural FBS atmosphere. Jacksonville State staged an incredible 14-point second half comeback and upended the Bearkats in overtime to claim a 35-28 victory in a thriller of a contest.
“Were you not entertained? Were you not entertained?” Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “When we can make so many mistakes and come back to win a game like this, it’s really neat. At halftime, I told the guys, ‘We don’t talk about the past. Don’t talk about the future. Just play every play,’ and they did that.”
With 1:11 remaining, Sam Houston seemingly delivered an excruciating blow to Jacksonville State with a 1-yard touchdown run by Trapper Pannell to create a 28-20 advantage. By needing all four tries from the goal line to score, Sam Houston effectively ran clock and exhausted all of Jacksonville State’s timeouts, requiring the Gameocck’s passing attack — which ranked fifth-to-last nationally in yardage — to fly down the field in a minute.
“It was a great goal line stand, but we were getting to the point where we were gonna let them score, go down by eight and try to tie it up like we did in the end,” Rodriguez said. “They wind up getting it, but we still had a minute. In our offense, a minute — if we can pitch and catch a little bit — is enough time. We picked a good time to finally start executing the pass game.”
The Gamecocks did just that with a poised Logan Smothers operating from the pocket. Smothers found Perry Carter for a 25-yard gain to invade Sam Houston territory, and three plays later, the Smothers-to-Carter connection showed its might once more, as the quarterback delivered a 26-yard dime to the receiver for a touchdown. But the job wasn’t finished yet and a two-point conversion was mandatory. On the all-important play, Smothers scrambled about the pocket, escaped pressure, and lobbed it to Quinton Lane in the back of the end zone for the tying grab.
“I keep forgetting — this is his first session in this offense,” Rodriguez said of Smothers. “He wasn’t here in the spring, he got here in the summer, so I get frustrated with it because we have such high expectations of all of our quarterbacks. But when it mattered most Logan Smothers came through and he was phenomenal in that last minute and in overtime.”
Pandemonium continued to ensue in the aftermath of Jacksonville State’s clutch drive which lasted all of 58 seconds. Sam Houston’s Malik Phillips nearly housed the subsequent kickoff with only one tackler separating him from an electrifying game-winning score on special teams. Phillips was shoved out of bounds at the 44-yard line, and due to a miscommunication regarding the spot of the ball, Sam Houston took a delay of game and attempted a Hail Mary, as opposed to setting up for a field goal.
“We couldn’t tell where the ball was,” Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler said. “We thought we might be in field goal range. (Phillips) went out of bounds across the field and we couldn’t get a real idea spot-wise, and I said to the official, ‘You should probably give us a chance to talk,’ because we couldn’t even tell where the ball was. We thought we were in field goal range. We thought the ball went out like at the 40. This kid has a strong leg. We would have shot it from 57 and that wouldn’t bother us, but all of a sudden we saw the ball was out at the 50 or wherever it was.”
Jacksonville State made quick work of the overtime period, earning the first possession after Sam Houston elected to defend. On the second play of overtime, Smothers discovered tight end Sean Brown wide open on a corner route with no Bearkat in his vicinity. The 24-yard touchdown — Smothers’ third touchdown strike outside of the red zone — vaulted Jacksonville State into the lead for the first time since the opening quarter. The Gamecocks’ defense fed off the offense’s energy and stifled Sam Houston in four plays, pulling off their first road win as an FBS member.
“They executed when they had to,” Rodriguez said. “At this level, on the road, getting the win — we’ll certainly take it.”
Smothers displayed tremendous in-game improvement for Jacksonville State, which was one factor that spurred the comeback. The Gamecocks shuffled between quarterbacks for parts of the first half, inserting Zion Webb into the game for some possessions. There was a point in the third quarter where Jacksonville State’s quarterbacks combined to complete 3-of-16 passes for 16 yards with one interception. But the tide certainly turned when Smothers launched a 31-yard bomb to Michael Pettway to slice a 21-7 deficit to 21-14 in the middle of the third quarter. He then gained rhythm with a 37-yard completion to Pettway on his next throw and remained in that groove for the remainder of the night. He completed 13 of his final 15 attempts for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think he’s just growing into the offense a little bit,” Rodriguez said. “What we’ve got to find is what he’s comfortable with. We’re still figuring that out as well. But he’s a very competitive guy. He ran his tail off when he had to. He was never out of control. He always knew what was going on. I think he and us will grow from this.”
The first half was dominated by a Sam Houston offense which had been dormant up until this point for the season. The Bearkats faced a challenging slate of BYU, Air Force, and Houston to open their FBS tenure, racking up just 10 points and 16 three-and-outs in those contests. But Sam Houston demonstrated its offensive potential with three first half touchdowns, starting with with a 56-yard pass from Keegan Shoemaker to running back John Gentry in the early first quarter. The Bearkats wound up with 28 points, nearly tripling their previous season output in their CUSA opener.
“A big part of the offensive problem has been how good of opponents we’ve played,” Keeler said. “We made some plays. I thought we had a nice wrinkle that Keegan went to the line of scrimmage and we found Gentry down the middle of the field. That really was an, ‘Okay. Good. Whew. We got some things going.’ I thought we ran the ball hard. It wasn’t always for big runs, but I thought we played a physical game.
Shoemaker regained the starting reins after Sam Houston tested former Arizona Wildcat quarterback Grant Gunnell against Houston in Week 4. Although the Bearkats struggled with the passing game in Weeks 1 through 4 with 105.7 yards per game (third-last in FBS), Shoemaker proved the potency of the aerial attack with 285 yards on 22 completions, particularly establishing a strong connection with Noah Smith who caught 10 balls for 97 yards and a touchdowns.
“We felt with especially losing more weapons, we needed to have Keegan as part of the run game,” Keeler said on his decision to start Shoemaker over Gunnell. “I thought Keegan, except for the interception, did some really good things and got himself out of trouble a bit. He had a nice day.”
Given the circumstances of the loss, Thursday was the first true heartbreak Sam Houston (0-4, 0-1 CUSA) suffered as an FBS member. The Bearkats never dealt with a lead prior to the matchup with Jacksonville State, and the team played ahead for the majority of a game for the first time this season. But by squandering a 14-point advantage, Sam Houston remains one of five FBS programs still in search of its first win of 2023.
“It felt like we were playing a team very comparable to ourselves,” Keeler said. “What you’ll see in the Conference USA is there’s gonna be a lot of 50-50 games. You can’t lose those games. You can’t lose those games. We lost, and you can’t lose those games. When you look at the schedule, we know how brutal the front end of it is. You’ve got to find a way to get a win. We had a chance to get a win today, and that’s what’s so disappointing is it was right there for us.”
Jacksonville State (4-1, 2-0 CUSA) is making the transition to the FBS level look seamless. The Gamecocks are 3-1 against FBS competition this year and remain undefeated in conference play, pulling out a two-touchdown comeback in a road environment to keep the train rolling.
“You don’t really know until you get tested, particularly on the road, but our guys showed a lot of heart. They showed a lot of grit, against a pretty good team in a tough environment. When everything looked lost at the end of the first half, nobody panicked. It looked lost at the end of the game, nobody panicked. So it’s a great win for our program.”