A slow start to the season made a return trip to the Football Championship Subdivision championship game seem unlikely for Sam Houston State.
A slow finish to Saturday evening's semi-final game against Eastern Washington almost derailed the Bearkats' unlikely dream run.
Quarterback Brian Bell ran for two touchdowns and threw for another and Sam Houston State raced to a 35-0 halftime lead but barely held on to beat the second-seeded Eagles 45-42.
The Bearkats (11-3) face top-seeded and defending champion North Dakota State, which won last year's matchup 17-16 on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
"When we were 1-2 at the beginning of the season I don't think there were very many people that thought we were going to get back," a relieved Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said.
The win over Eastern Washington (11-3) was the Bearkats' third straight over a Big Sky Conference team in the playoffs this year and fifth straight in the past two years.
"I want to give a ton of credit to (Eastern Washington)," Fritz said. "Most teams would have folded shop when they were down 35-0 in the first half and kicking off to us in the second half. Those guys really did a sensational job in the second half."
After the Bearkats dominated the first half, Eastern Washington backup quarterback Vernon Adams tied a school record with six touchdown passes in seven possessions to pull the Eagles within a field goal with 3:02 to play.
However, behind Tim Flanders, who rushed for 231 yards, Sam Houston State was able to run out the clock. The Bearkats had 503 yards of offense, 418 of which came on the ground.
"We were clearly hitting on all cylinders offensively and playing real well defensively," Fritz said of the first half. "When a team doesn't have a lot of time to work on the triple option it's hard."
Eastern had 523 yards, 481 in the air. Adams finished by completing 14 of 26 attempts for 364 yards. Brandon Kaufman had nine receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns, the first 200-yard game for the junior All-American but his 19th 100-yard game.
Kaufman, who had only two catches for 15 yards in the first half, set the FCS record for single-season yardage on his second touchdown. He went past the 1,712-yard record set by Eddie Conti of Delaware in 1998.
Kaufman finishes the season with 93 receptions for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"It was obviously a tale of two halves," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "Hats off to Sam Houston. You know us, we're not into moral victories. I'm just real proud of our guys for fighting back...to have a shot to win the game when I'm sure no one expected that."
After Adams' fourth touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, Bell engineered a five-play, 86-yard drive, completing three passes for 38 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Shane Young.
Through three quarters Sam Houston State quarterbacks were 5 of 9 for 32 yards.
"We got a little too stagnant, a little too conservative.we had to open it again," Fritz said. "Quite a few times (it felt like we lost momentum). We probably should have been more aggressive."
Adams responded with a 4-play, 78-yard drive in 61 seconds to make it 42-35 on a 7-yard pass to Nicholas Edwards with 9:48 to play. The Bearkats got a 42-yard field goal from Miguel Antonio but after Adams was intercepted, the Eastern Washington defense held and Adams threw his sixth touchdown, a 33-yarder that Kaufman took away from a defensive back in the end zone.
Bell had touchdowns of 6 and 72 yards sandwiched around a 37-yard interception return by Robert Shaw. Keshawn Hill added a 15-yard run and wide receiver Richard Sincere, playing quarterback in a wildcat formation, scored on a 6-yard run in the first half.
Until Adams had scrambles of 11 and 7 yards late in the first half, Eastern Washington had negative 1-yard rushing. Meanwhile, the Bearkats piled up 285 yards, led by Flanders with 116.
The Eagles had 155 yards through the air but in addition to the interception return, Shaw picked off Adams at the goal line late in the second quarter.
Adams threw three touchdowns in the third quarter, connecting with Greg Herd for 31 yards early and Kaufman for 22 late, followed by a 43-yarder to Ashton Clark after a successful on-side kick. He made it four possessions in a row with a 43-yarder to Kaufman two minutes into the fourth quarter.
The only other time these two teams played was in the 2004 playoffs in Cheney when the Bearkats rallied from 20 points down with 10 minutes to play to beat Eastern 35-34 with a touchdown and extra point on the last play of the game.
They start a home-and-home regular-season series next season in Huntsville, Texas.