Football’s a tough enough game when everyone’s pulling together and everyone knows what they’re doing. But for a team that lacks a true identity, one that is youthful and inexperienced, the game can be doubly difficult.
That was the case for the Bearkats last fall when they took on a seasoned Western Illinois squad in Macomb, Ill.
But times have changed.
With a higher comfort level with coaches, teammates and the game plan, the Bearkats look to change their fortunes and erase the sting of last fall’s 56-14 blowout loss to the Leathernecks in tonight’s season opener.
“We’re ready to go. We’ve been working hard this whole fall camp, preparing for them,” Bearkats sophomore cornerback Daxton Swanson said following Wednesday’s walk-through. “They gave it to us last year, so we’re wanting to get a little revenge on them.”
Heading into last season’s contest against the Leathernecks, Sam Houston, which had nearly as many freshmen as returning players, was still trying to figure things out.
Who would play where and what would be the best plan of attack with the current personnel on both sides of the ball were big questions the coaching staff was still trying to answer.
In the second game of the season, Tim Flanders got his first start at running back and the Kats’ quarterbacks were being rotated in and out of the game.
The result ended up not being pretty as the Leathernecks totaled more than 550 yards of total offense (321 rushing and 237 passing) and scored 28 unanswered points in the second half.
“We really got kicked last year in the game, there’s no ifs, ands, buts or maybes about it,” Bearkats head coach Willie Fritz said. “They have a good ballclub. They had a good ballclub last year. Their quarterback made us look bad. We did a poor job of tackling in space. It was a poor job of playing leverage and keeping contain(ment). Those are things we’ve worked on in practice.”
What came out of that 42-point shellacking, however, was that the Bearkats were able to see what they would have to do offensively and defensively to get into the win column.
Flanders had a breakout game, rushing for 156 yards and two touchdowns. The Bearkats also found their quarterback of the future in Brian Bell, a true freshman who was effective after stepping into the game.
“Tim just went off in that game and we figured we had something. We made the change at quarterback with Brian in the second half and went with him the rest of the way,” Fritz said.
“After that, it snapped us back into reality that we’ve got to prepare harder in practice and every day,” Swanson said.
That loss to Western Illinois proved to be the jumping-off point for the Bearkats, who won six of their final nine games – four against Southland Conference opponents.
“We just had to find our spark,” Flanders said. “That was my first start, so I was nervous. Right after that game, we came closer and that’s why we started winning a lot of games.”
With nearly every starter back this fall, the Bearkats hope to pick up where they left off.
“It’s a lot easier when everybody’s familiar. We’ve grown older over the year and have gotten familiar with each other,” Swanson said. “We feel a lot more confident. Everybody’s on the same page. On defense, because we were young guys we were lost at times. Now everybody knows everything. We’re ready to rock and roll.”
“We just want to come out and make a statement and win games,” Flanders said. “It can really set the tone, coming out and getting a win against a good team. We can start it off right.”
Western Illinois won’t have quarterback Matt Barr, who was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award last year for most outstanding offensive player in the FCS division.
But the Leathernecks will have both of their running backs – Caulton Ray (1,136 rushing yards and nine touchdowns) and Bryce Flowers (849 rushing yards and eight TDs), who will again try to run all over the field against the Sam Houston defense.
The Bearkats defense was one of the Southland’s top defenses against the run last season, statistically speaking. That will be a focal point today, especially against the Leathernecks, who base a large part of their offense from moving up and down the field off the run.
“I think they’re going to try and do the same type of stuff. They’re a big, physical team,” Fritz said. “We’ve got to do a super job of limiting their effectiveness running the football. It’s going to be a big game up front on both sides.
“They’ve got a lot of kids coming back, so this is going to be a super test to see how far we’ve come in one year’s time.”