No. 2 seed Sam Houston State won the FCS national championship in epic fashion on Sunday, converting multiple fourth downs en route to a game-winning touchdown pass from Eric Schmid to Ife Adeyi to seal the 23-21 win over No. 1 seed South Dakota State.
At the conclusion of a spring season unlike anything we'd seen in Division I football, it's only fitting that the FCS title game carried so much drama. South Dakota State star quarterback Mark Gronowski was injured on the first drive of the game and did not return; a torrential downpour not only led to a mishandled punt for Sam Houston but a botched field goal attempt by South Dakota State; lightning delayed the game for more than an hour, and when both teams returned, the lead changed hands three times before the Bearkats had completed yet another comeback victory in these spring 2021 playoffs.
With the win, Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler becomes the first coach to lead multiple programs to FCS national championships after first winning with his alma mater Delaware back in 2003. Keeler also broke a tie with former Ohio State and Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel for the most-ever FCS playoffs wins. This is a Sam Houston program that reached the national title game twice in 2011 and 2012 with current Tulane coach Willie Fritz. Keeler took over in 2014 and led the Bearkats to the FCS semifinals in three of his first four years on the job, but this is the first time he's returned to the title game as Sam Houston's coach.
South Dakota State lost Gronowski, the Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year, to a knee injury on the first drive of the game in what was an overall clunky start for both teams. Sam Houston saw the impact of the conditions and a wet ball as it lost a fumble on its fifth offensive play of the game, which set up South Dakota State in great position. All it took from there was one long run by Isaiah Davis, one of the stars of the game with 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns, to put the Jackrabbits in scoring position.
The Bearkats seemed doomed to a game of mistakes when another mishandled snap followed, this time by the punter, setting up South Dakota State inside the 20-yard line with a chance to go up two scores. But after gaining just 2 yards, the Jackrabbits had their field goal attempt blown up by a mishandled snap of their own. With a little bit of momentum on its side, Sam Houston started feeding its playmakers like Jequez Ezzard.
The Bearkats' all-purpose star first made his impact felt on a punt return touchdown that was called back for a block in the back, but he would not be denied and delivered a game-changing play with his 35-yard touchdown off a screen pass from Schmid.
After the delay, Sam Houston continued to find ways to make Ezzard the center of its offense. Ezzard finished the game with 10 catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns, even as South Dakota State dedicated more and more of its defense's attention into stopping the transfer from Howard, who was named the Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year.
The Bearkats got into a rhythm on offense and marched right back down the field, only to stall and have to settle for a field goal to extend the lead to 17-7 before Davis stormed South Dakota State back into the game. Davis was running past and over defenders all day, scoring on touchdown runs of 28 yards and 85 yards to give the Jackrabbits a fourth-quarter lead.
When Sam Houston got the ball with five minutes left, it was clear the Bearkats were going to play for the title on this final drive. South Dakota State did a good job of isolating Ezzard from making the big play, but the Bearkats' star wide receiver came up with one of the multiple fourth-down conversions on the game-winning drive and drew attention away from Adeyi for the game-winning score.
CBS Sports was with you the entire way with live updates from the 2021 FCS championship game. Read on below for analysis and highlights from South Dakota State vs. Sam Houston State on Sunday.