HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Junior Isaiah Downes came up with an interception on fourth and goal with 48 seconds left to preserve a 21-15 victory over No. 10 Monmouth in the opening round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Bowers Stadium on Saturday.
The Bearkats (7-0), who improved to 14-0 in home playoff games, will host either Eastern Washington or North Dakota State on May 1.
Running back Ramon Jefferson had touchdown runs of 56 and three yards to lead the Sam Houston offense with 98 yards on nine carries. Wideout Cody Crest accounted for the Bearkats' other score, a 13-yard pass from quarterback Eric Schmid, who was 12 for 24 for 133 yards passing.
The Hawks (3-1), who were one for nine on third down conversions through almost three quarters, went seven for eight with a pair of fourth-down conversions on their two scoring drives to claw back into the game.
Monmouth finally got something going offensively in late in the third quarter, but it ate up more than eight minutes of clock. The 17-play, 90-yard drive resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run by Juwan Farri and a two-point conversion reception by Gene Scott with 13:09 left in the game to cut the lead to 21-8.
The Hawks weren't done yet. Monmouth got a defensive stop and marched right back down the field for an 86-yard scoring drive when quarterback Tony Muskett hit Terrance Greene for a 30-yard score.
Another defensive stand gave the Hawks a chance to win it in the final minutes. Monmouth drove down to the SHSU 9-yard line and faced a fourth down with 56 seconds left in the game. The Bearkats had the following play covered, and Muskett threw it right into the arms of Downes to seal the win.
The defense was the key for Sam Houston. The Hawks outgained the Kats 398 to 257 of total offense, but SHSU had two turnovers 16 tackles for a loss and six sacks, three by linebacker Markel Perry, one each by linebacker Quentin Brown and lineman Chris Scott, and half sacks by linemen Scean Mustin and Jevon Leon.
The Bearkats had a three-score lead in the third quarter thanks to big plays by Jefferson and sophomore wideout Ife Adeyi.
After Jefferson picked up 24 yards on a handoff to move the ball near midfield, Adeyi got past the defense and Schmid found him downfield for a 52-yard reception. Jefferson finished the drive by plowing through the Hawks' defense for a three-yard touchdown to put SHSU up 21-0 at the 9:49 mark.
It was a better start to the second half than it was in the first.
Sam Houston struggled offensively for most of the first half despite having the lead. That finally changed in the final three minutes.
Jefferson exploded through the line and outraced the Monmouth defense 56 yards to the end zone to help the Kats take a 14-0 lead with 2:52 to go in the second quarter. The play was just a few yards shy of Sam Houston's total offense up until that point.
The Hawks also outgained the Bearkats 158 to 118 yards of total offense in the first half. Sam Houston just made the plays when it counted to keep Monmouth off the scoreboard.
The Bearkats were the first to strike following a defensive stop that ended with a turnover on downs when Monmouth punter Ryan Kost failed to get a punt off at the Hawks' 47-yard line.
Schmid hit Crest for a 15-yard reception to get the ball rolling. Crest also had a catch for seven yards and tight end Isaac Schley hauled in a pass for eight.
Crest capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown when Schmid found him along the Monmouth sideline, and he was able to race to the front left pylon for the score. Seth Morgan put the extra point through the uprights to give Sam Houston a 7-0 lead.