Courtesy GoBearkats.com Since the loss to North Dakota State in January’s FCS championship game, the Bearkats have been working overtime ever since for a chance to get back to Frisco for another shot at a national title.
There’s just one more hurdle standing in their way: That’s No. 2 seed Eastern Washington in today’s semifinal clash at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. The winner faces North Dakota State in Frisco Saturday Jan. 5. The Bison defeated Georgia Southern 23-20 Friday in Fargo.
“This just gives us a chance to prove to everybody that we’re the best in the country,” Sam Houston senior wide receiver Trey Diller said.
“I think we’ve probably had the best week of practice we’ve had all year. Everybody’s been into practice, everybody’s been on time, focused in meetings, focused in practice. You can tell everybody wants it.”
In order to advance to the FCS national championship game, the Bearkats (10-3 overall) will need to be on top of their game on both offense and defense as the Eagles present a tough challenge.
Offensively, Eastern Washington (11-2) will look to run the ball, but the crux of their attack comes from SMU transfer quarterback Kyle Padron, who has excelled the past few games with passing performances of 381, 327 and 358 yards, with eight combined touchdowns, including six TDs against Illinois State in last week’s quarterfinal game.
Padron has a pair of wideouts in Brandon Kaufman and Greg Herd who stand at 6-5 and 6-3, respectively, to whom he can loft the ball to.
The players in the Sam Houston secondary knows they must do a solid job of sticking with their assignments long enough for the defensive front to get pressure in the backfield or Padron and Co. could spell trouble for the Kats.
“We know it’s going to be a big challenge. It’s going to be one of the biggest challenges that we’re going to have this year,” Bearkats junior cornerback Bookie Sneed said. “They’ve got a couple of big receivers. We’re ready for the challenge. It’s going to be a game of who can make a play on the ball.
“It doesn’t change anything, besides the jump ball. They can look pretty deceptive as far as speed on their routes. It’s going to be a challenge, particularly for me and (cornerback) Dax (Swanson) and the DBs. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The last time Sam Houston faced an FCS team that possesses the passing acumen like Eastern Washington, the Kats were victimized through the air by Stephen F. Austin quarterback Brady Attaway for 545 yards and five touchdowns.
“We’ve been into these type of battles,” Sneed said. “One thing that is different is that SFA, Baylor and A&M changed a lot of receivers. A receiver would come off (the field) and another would come on. Eastern Washington, they pretty much play the same guys.”
While the Bearkats also gave up plenty of passing yards to Texas A&M (370 yards), the Sam Houston secondary feels it has drastically improved since the Battle of the Piney Woods game in early October.
“You want to progress as the season goes on. You don’t want to be content with where you are. As I look at it now, I know we have gotten better and we’ve continued to get better,” Sneed said.
On the heels of a 458-yard, 34-point performance against Montana State last week, the Kats offense hopes to pick up where it left off against a defense that is ranked 79th in total defense (allowing 394.08 yards per game) and let Illinois State gain 520 yards in the quarterfinals.
“Obviously, we’ve got one of the best running backs (Timothy Flanders) in the country, one of the best backfields in the country,” Diller said. “You’ve got to factor that in when defenses scout us and look at all of our weapons.
“Richard (Sincere) comes in with the wildkat and it’s a whole different thing. Now that he’s throwing the ball, it’s a whole different dimension. It opens up the passing game. Without the run game, you can’t have the passing game and without the pass game, you can’t have the run game. We kind of feed off each other and open each other up. It all comes down to the offensive line.”
Despite the Eagles’ struggles on defense statistically, the Bearkats know that Eastern Washington’s defense won’t be easy to solve.
“They’re not here for no reason,” Diller said. “They’ve got a great defensive line. They put pressure on the ball. They’ve got a couple of good DBs. They like to stop the run. We’ve got to play our game like we’ve been coached to do. If we do come out here and do what coach says to the best of our abilities, we’ll go out there and execute and win this game without a doubt.”
Besides running the ball (averaging 178.5 rushing yards in playoff victories over Cal Poly and Montana State), where Sam Houston has shined has been in its ability to keep from turning the ball over. The Bearkats have not turned over the ball in either of their playoff games.
“Offensively, we’ve just got to keep securing the football and all of those kinds of things,” Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. “That’s kind of the big deal for us. We put the ball on the ground a few times (against Montana State), but luckily we were able to get the ball back. We’ve got to do a great job of ball security and not turning the ball over. I think when we do that, we’re going to play very well on offense.”
With another solid 60 minutes, the Bearkats, who have won nine of their last 10 games and nine straight against FCS squads, know they can punch their ticket back to Frisco. They’ve got to take care of business today against Eastern Washington for that to happen.
“We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves thinking of Frisco. We have to take this game in order to get to Frisco. We’ve been watching a lot of film and they’re beatable,” Diller said of the Eagles. “We feel like if we play like we did on Friday, there’s not going to be a team that can contend with us.”
Having played in nine games away from Bowers Stadium, including eight as true road games, the Bearkats will be playing far from home again today as they’ll take on second-seeded Eastern Washington in Cheney, Wash., this afternoon at 3.
“We’ve just got to go out there and play hard,” Sam Houston running back Timothy Flanders said Thursday following the Kats’ final practice. “It’s another road trip, another business trip. We’ve done a tremendous job with our focus. We’re just one game away from being where we were last year.”
Whether it’s been at a rowdy Kyle Field in College Station, Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco or even at an amped Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Mont., which was the case last week in the FCS quarterfinals, the Bearkats have become all too familiar with running out of the visitors’ locker room to hostilities from the home crowd.
In last week’s quarterfinal matchup with No. 3 seed Montana State, the Kats dealt with heckling as they were going through their warmups as well as having snowballs thrown their way.
“It’s a very exciting feeling coming out of the locker room,” Sam Houston senior defensive tackle J.T. Cleveland said. “Everybody is screaming against you. You’ve got the guys in the locker room and that’s it. It’s basically us against the world.
“It kind of pumps us up. It puts us in the right mind-frame that it’s not going to be easy. We have a whole stadium cheering against us, so we have to give it everything we have.”
With snow in and around Cheney today, the Bearkats may get another round of snowballs, but that’s what they expect with so much on the line.
For a second straight week, Sam Houston will have to battle the elements as temperatures are forecasted to be in the 30s with a chance of snow. That’s what the Kats dealt with last week in Bozeman, Mont., when they handily beat the Bobcats 34-16 to advance to today’s semifinal.
“I don’t think it will be as cold, just for the fact that it’s a day game, compared to what it was in Montana,” Flanders said. “Being in the cold, we had heaters and everything. It didn’t even seem like it affected us.”
Traveling and winning big is nothing new to these Bearkats. Over the past two seasons, the Kats have won an impressive 10 games out of 14 trips away from Bowers Stadium. During that span, the only losses were to North Dakota State in last January’s FCS national championship game, a 24-20 loss to Central Arkansas on the Bears’ purple-and-gray colored turf as well as bowl-bound Baylor and Texas A&M.
“That’s one thing that coach (Willie Fritz) preaches all the time, that we’ve got to win on the road if we want to be a great team,” Cleveland said. “That’s what we’ve been striving to do this year. We want to be road warriors.”
With just one more victory separating the Kats from another trip to the national championship game, they plan on doing the same things that got them to this point and insist that even on the road, where they’ve gotten comfortable playing, they be won’t deterred.
“We know it’s one more game. All we’ve got to get through is one more game and we can get a long break (three weeks) before the national championship,” Flanders said. “We just have to go out there and maintain our focus.
“We work with the crowd noise (over the speakers during practice), so we should be used to all of the fans being out there. I know they’re going to pack the house because they’re in the same boat we are, just like North Dakota State and Georgia Southern. We just have to go out there and play our game.”