BOZEMAN (AP) — Brian Bell threw for 254 yards and three touchdowns and Sam Houston State cruised to a 34-16 FCS playoff quarterfinal win over Montana State on Friday night.
The un-seeded Bearkats (10-3) took advantage of Jon Ellis' fumble on a first down reception to take control of the game late in the third quarter. Third-seeded Montana State (11-2) had cut Sam Houston State's lead to 20-9 on its first drive of the second half only to see the turnover set up a short field and a touchdown pass from Bell to Chance Nelson giving the Bearkats a 27-9 lead.
“I think that was a huge play and I’m not knocking, I’m not putting it on Jon Ellis, he had a great game. I thought he really showed up, he played well, he caught the ball well, made some guys miss, so I’m not putting it on him,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said of Ellis who finished with six catches for 67 yards. “But that was a big play, the fumble, because we had the first down. I think the momentum might have continued to go our way.”
Bell completed 11-of -21 passes and the 254 yards marked his third highest passing total as quarterback. Diller had three catches for 104 yards. Nelson finished with five receptions for 89 yards.
The Bobcats were dealt a blow early when senior linebacker, and Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year, Jody Owens was injured and didn't return.
“Losing Jody hurts a lot,” Ash said. “Alex Singleton is a great football player and I thought he played really, really well in this football game, but he’s not Jody in the sense of what Jody brings to the table. Jody’s leadership and the confidence guys have when he’s out there.”
Montana State was also without the services of its leading rusher Cody Kirk for most of the game.
Bearkats running back Tim Flanders had 106 yards on 31 carries.
Richard Sincere scored on a 12-yard run for the Bearkats in the second quarter. Trey Diller scored on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Bell, and Miguel Antonio tacked on a field goal to complete the first half scoring and give the Bearkats a 20-3 lead.
"He stuck the cornerback on that route," Bell said of his TD pass to Diller. "I saw him wide open and I didn't know where the corner went. I still don't know where he went."
Prior to that touchdown, Montana State saw a touchdown pass ruled a penalty when DeNarius McGhee threw a forward pass to tackle Steven Foster. McGhee needed to lateral the ball. The Cats scored on an 8-yard run by DeNarius McGhee and a late Ellis’ TD reception, but it just wasn’t enough o slow down the Bearkats.
Montana State was held to 72 yards on the ground.
“It’s championship or bust,” McGhee said. “We didn’t get it done. Everyone gave their all, that’s all we can ask for, but we didn’t get it done. This program, our expectations are extremely high and we would never lower our expectations. So, I have to say it’s championship or bust.”
Sam Houston advances to the semifinals to face Eastern Washington, which will be played Saturday in Cheney, Wash. Georgia Southern will travel to top-seeded North Dakota State in the other semifinal.
Sam Houston State eliminated Montana State in the quarterfinals for the second straight year. Last season, at home in Huntsville, the Bearkats routed the Bobcats 49-13, then went on to beat Montana in the FCS semifinals a week later.
The Bobcats lose a large and talented senior class which includes Owens, defensive tackle Zach Minter, and defensive end Caleb Schreibeis, Trey Robinson and Orenzo Davis, all of whom played their final game in front of nearly 17,000 fans Saturday night at Bobcat Stadium.
Note: Havre Daily News Sports Editor George Ferguson contributed to this story.