By Jacob Taylor
Samford football had one of its most successful seasons in school history this year. After hosting their first playoff game ever, the Bulldogs exceeded that achievement by winning and reaching the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
The Bulldogs went undefeated in Southern Conference play this season, with their only loss coming at the hands of SEC powerhouse the University of Georgia.
Samford was led by quarterback, Michael Hiers, who passed for 35 touchdowns and threw just three interceptions. Hiers’ completion percentage of 76% on the year helped him sweep the Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Month awards.
But it wasn’t just the offense that was responsible for Samford’s success. The defense held their opponents to just over 23 points per game, the lowest point total allowed through a regular season in five years.
After clinching a share of the title in their 10th game against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Bulldogs finished the job in double-overtime against the Mercer Bears to end the season. Samford’s win marked its first outright Southern Conference title since 1936.
Hiers threw for 454 yards, four touchdowns and rushed for another touchdown. Two Samford wide receivers, Chandler Smith and D.J. Rias, totaled more than 100 receiving yards.
“Our guys have been playing well all season. Having an opportunity to reach the ten-win benchmark, which is very difficult to do, to be the first team since 1936 in Samford lore to be the outright conference champions, and then to beat our arch-rival ranked team in Mercer at home on senior day, made it very special,” head coach Chris Hatcher said in a postgame press conference. “It’s just a great testament to our coaches, to our staff, and our team, for finding a way to get it done on Saturday.”
The Bulldogs moved on to the FCS playoffs, where they hosted Southeastern Louisiana University after clinching a bye week in the first round.
Samford defeated the Southeastern Lions at home 48-42 in overtime.
After attempting just three passes, Hiers left the game following an injury he sustained in the previous match against Mercer. Backup quarterback and walk-on Quincy Crittendon took over for Hiers and led the Samford offense for over 500 total yards. Crittendon threw four touchdowns, including 94 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Samford’s defense forced three fumbles, including a late fumble in overtime by Lions quarterback, Cephus Johnson III, that was punched out by Samford linebacker, Brayden Devault-Smith.
Crittendon then led his team down the field before rushing for his second walk-off touchdown in two games. With the win, the Bulldogs moved on in the FCS playoffs to the quarterfinals where they faced the North Dakota State University Bison.
Samford lost to NDSU in the FCS quarterfinals 27-9 in the Fargodome at North Dakota State.
The Samford offense remained scoreless through the first three quarters, while their defense allowed 24 points heading into the fourth quarter.
“We knew they were going to be tough, we knew they were going to chip away and control the time of possession,” said Samford linebacker Nathan East. “But it’s hard, you know, even when we were in the right spot, we’re making tackles but they’re falling forward for three yards. You do that enough, you keep getting first downs.”
Samford gained 336 yards on offense, similar to NDSU’s total of 360. But North Dakota State implemented a run-heavy attack. 73% of their plays on offense were on the ground, leading to 166 total rushing yards in the game. The Bison dominated the time of possession, doubling Samford’s own time on offense.
The Samford offense never found an effective scheme to counteract the NDSU running game. While they were able to reach the red zone early, the Bulldogs were unable to come away with points until the fourth quarter. The Bison blocked a kick in the first quarter to keep the game scoreless.
“We could never really get in a rhythm with some of those drives until the second half,” said Samford wide receiver Chandler Smith. “We couldn’t finish some of those drives in the first half when we did get down there. Just obviously a great defense, and hats off to them for playing a great game.”
Crittendon started at quarterback for the Bulldogs but was replaced at halftime by Hiers who went on to throw for 227 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
“We started Quincy in the first half, and I thought that we just looked out of rhythm,” Hatcher said after the game. “So in the second half, we let Mike go in there and he played really well.”
Despite the loss to NDSU, the resilience of this team was evident all year. From making history by hosting a playoff game to making it to the FCS playoff quarterfinals, the Bulldogs continued to shatter the ceiling of expectations. Samford football will return next year with high expectations for a squad that gained valuable playoff experience.