HUNTSVILLE, Texas — With North Dakota State's offense stagnant, the Bison turned to special teams to climb back into their Division I Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game against Sam Houston on Sunday, May 2, at Bowers Stadium.
Trailing 17-2 after the Bearkats opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive, NDSU's Christian Watson returned the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a TD. After NDSU's defense held Sam Houston to a three-and-out, Braylon Henderson returned a punt 76 yards for another score. When Cam Miller hit Watson in the end zone for a 2-point conversion, the game was tied 17-17.
"That was definitely huge," Watson said. "And then Braylon scoring. Having big plays like that when we were at a standstill sparks a lot of liveliness and emotion on the field."
There was 6:43 left in the third quarter, the Bison offense had yet to run a play and NDSU had made up a 15-point deficit. That special teams burst, however, didn't prove to be enough with Sam Houston earning a 24-20 victory, scoring the game-winning touchdown with less than four minutes to play in the four quarter.
"It's impressive for them to get back in the game that could've been a little bit different if it wasn't for a couple of special teams plays," Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler said.
On a day when Sam Houston's defense held NDSU to 139 rushing yards and 229 total yards, the Bison's return game was their most dangerous weapon. NDSU's only points that resulted from a drive by the offense was a 33-yard field goal by Jake Reinholz in the fourth quarter that gave it a 20-17 lead.
Keeler said the Bearkats kept some regular special teams players off the field to keep them fresh on defense. The coach said Sam Houston's coaches were concerned how the Bearkats would hold up against NDSU's physical style of play.
"We maybe put some guys out there that put us in harm's way," Keeler said. "That's a coaching decision. That's on the head coach and I will take responsibility for that."
Keeler said the returns by Watson and Henderson "were just great individual efforts by their returners more than anything else."
Blocked punt big play in first half
NDSU hung in the game in the first half thanks to a blocked punt by Logan McCormick. The senior, and a few teammates, sliced through the middle of the Sam Houston interior line and stuffed punter Matt McRobert.
The ball bounced through the side of the end zone for a safety, and Sam Houston's dominating 10-0 lead was down to 10-2. McCormick said he was supposed to try and split a shield of blockers in front of McRobert, but took a different route.
"I saw an opening and thought why not?" McCormick said. "I was able to get outside the shield and get a hand on it. "
The Bison, however, failed to capitalize on the momentum. Watson didn't get many returns yards on the free kick and the Bison started from their own 33-yard line. Three plays lost four yards and NDSU punted.
The Bison almost had another special teams big play when the snap back to McRobert bounced. But McRobert was able to gather the ball and get off a 40-yard punt into the wind.
NDSU's last safety was in 2018 against Southern Illinois when a punt got blocked through the end zone. Before that, Grant Morgan tackled a South Dakota State ballcarrier in the end zone in 2016 in the quarterfinals at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
In all, NDSU now has three safeties in the FCS playoffs since 2015: Morgan and Brian Schaetz vs. Northern Iowa in 2015.
Adeyi makes Bearkats' biggest play
Sophomore receiver Ife Adeyi made what turned out to be the biggest play of the game for Sam Houston. His 43-yard catch from quarterback Eric Schmid late in the fourth quarter set up Schmid's game-winning 6-yard touchdown run with 3:39 left.
On third-and-10 from NDSU's 48, Adeyi streaked down the left sideline and made an over-shoulder-catch over cornerback Jayden Price.
Adeyi was mainly a soccer player before beginning to play football as a high school freshman.
"You talk about a big-time catch — that was a big-time catch on that sideline," Keeler said. "There wasn't a lot of room on that sideline. That was not just a turn and look it in, that was an over-the-shoulder catch. Ife can make those plays."
Sam Houston stingy in the red zone
NDSU drove inside the Sam Houston 20-yard line two times in the fourth quarter and came away with three points, which came on Jake Reinholz's 33-yard field goal that gave the Bison a 20-17 lead with 8:17 to play in the fourth quarter.
However, the Bison had it first-and-10 at the Bearkats 13-yard line before that drive stalled. On NDSU's next possession, it drove as deep as the Sam Houston 17, but needed to try to score a touchdown, trailing 24-20 with less than one minute to play.
“I think it was just execution on our side," Watson said. “As a whole as an offense we could have just executed a lot better.”
The Bison offense never found the end zone with both NDSU's touchdowns coming on special teams, plus a blocked punt for a safety.
“The blame doesn’t fall on one person," Henderson said of the offensive struggles. "There are 11 guys out there.”
Bison safety Michael Tutsie left the game in the first half with a wrist injury and did not return. ... Garret Wegner had a 62-yard punt in the first half to pin Sam Houston deep. He had a career-long 67-yarder at Missouri State. Wegner, a senior, entered the game averaging 45.8 yards per punt, fourth best in FCS. ... Freshman offensive tackle Jake Rock missed the game with an injured ankle, one week after an impressive starting debut against Eastern Washington. Rock was replaced in the starting lineup by true freshman Mason Miller of Ada, Minn. ... NDSU and Sam Houston used tents outside Bowers Stadium as their dressing room, because of a $15 million renovation to the school's locker rooms and offices.