By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Head football coaches in the Southland Conference are not allowed to pick their own team in the preseason poll, so this past summer the coach of the defending champion relied on what he noticed late last season.
Thus, Stephen F. Austin's J.C. Harper cast the only first-place vote for Sam Houston State, which finished fourth in the poll.
It had become evident to Harper during the 2010 season that continuity was developing with the Bearkats under their first-year head coach, Willie Fritz. Once in conference play, they rolled to three straight wins, then lost three in a row to a trio of the top teams by a combined 11 points, then ended the season with wins over Central Arkansas and Texas State.
Sam Houston State has carried the momentum through to Fritz's second season, winning all 14 of its games, to reach the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game for the first time. The Bearkats will play North Dakota State (13-1) Saturday at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
"They're a team that believes," Harper said.
Southland coaches who know Sam Houston State so well probably believe North Dakota State coaches are feeling fortunate to have a three-week break between the national semifinals and the championship game. The Bearkats lead in the FCS in scoring offense (39.1 ppg) and are second only to North Dakota State in scoring defense (14.8 ppg).
It's one thing to break down what the Bearkats do, but it's another to try to stop them.
The speed in the skills positions helps set the offense apart. And the playmakers come from many angles, putting stress on opposing defenses.
Officially, the Bearkats are listed with only one running back. But their receivers move into the backfield and sophomore quarterback Brian Bell basically runs a wishbone out of the shotgun, often reading what the defense is giving.
The read option provides deception in the backfield and opens up the passing game.
"Their scheme, there's just so many weapons and so many options they have," said Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque, whose team made the FCS playoffs, but lost to Sam Houston State by three touchdowns in the regular season. "And, of course, they run an option-based offense, but there's so many options within the offense."
Unlike Bell, Sincere rarely passes out of the Bearkat, but he is their chief breakaway threat, averaging eight yards a pop on his 120 carries. His versatility earned him the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year award.
Still, the first option is to get the ball in the hands of running back Timothy Flanders, the Southland Conference Player of the Year who has rushed for 1,560 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, including a Bearkats single- game record 287 yards in the semifinal against Montana. A redshirt sophomore who originally attended Kansas State, he has terrific feet and cutback ability that allows him to escape tackles.
Running back Ryan Wilson also is an option for an offense that averages 267.4 yards on the ground.
"They've got playmakers, but it's on Flanders," McNeese State coach Matt Viator said. "He kind of sets it up. And then they put Sincere and those guys in there, but everything to me really is built around Flanders and having to stop him."
Bell forces defenses to defend him on the option run. When he works out of the shotgun, he can fake to Flanders and sprint up the middle on a quarterback draw.
An efficient passer, Bell usually throws short, quick passes and is not a downfield passer. He has completed 131-of-212 attempts (61.8 percent) for 1,954 yards and 20 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
North Dakota State will want to put Bell in third-and-long situations and force him to spend more time in the pocket, negating the option runs.
"Their quarterback, Brian Bell, has thrown the ball extremely well and executed when he's been in," Northwestern State coach Bradley Dale Peveto said. "I think one thing they've done this year is they've protected the ball extremely well.
The receiving threats are Flanders coming out of the backfield and wideouts Sincere (25 receptions for a team-high 449 receiving yards) and 5-foot-8 Torrance Williams (team-high 30 receptions for 397 yards), who is dangerous in open space. Flanders leads the team with 24 total touchdowns and Sincere has 13.
The offensive line has improved dramatically from last season and provides a level of physicality that gets overlooked amid the speed surrounding it. Senior center Travis Watson is the anchor and senior left guard Chris Crockett has enjoyed a breakout season. The biggest starting linemen is 6-6, 300-pound Kaleb Hopson, while Dan Jenkins is the starting left tackle and Matt Boyles is the right guard.
"I think probably the most underrated part of their football team is their offensive line," Viator said. "I'll continue to say that. Look what they did against Montana State and Montana, who you know have good fronts on both sides. I mean, to be able to run the football ... sure, there's no question, Flanders has talent and Sincere has talent ... but they're getting a good push consistently."
Third-year coordinator Scott Stoker is well-versed in the Southland Conference, having been a star quarterback and head coach at Northwestern State and a former assistant, including as the coordinator on each side of the ball, at McNeese State.
Stocker's defense helped hold the Bearkats together in Fritz's first season last year while the offense developed consistency in its scheme.
The Bearkats utilize a 4-2-5 alignment and Stoker stresses putting pressure, pressure, pressure on opposing offenses.
"To me what stands out is just how hard they play. And they play really tough," Harper said. "They play a scheme that basically puts enough (defenders) up there to where you can't run the football and they play man- free and lock you up with your receivers, with the idea they're going to force the quarterback to beat you."
North Dakota State will want to get to the perimeter and establish a running game with backs Sam Ojuri and D.J. McNorton. But the Bearkats possess the FCS' top-rated rushing defense. They have allowed 69.9 rushing yards per game on 2.6 yards per carry.
The Bearkats often rotate players on the defensive line and at linebacker. They brought in two defensive ends as Bowl Subdivision transfers, starter Andrew Weaver (Texas A&M) and backup Jarrett Brown (Oklahoma), who are tied for the team high with five sacks each. The two combine with starter Eddie Decambre and backup Preston Sanders to box in runners from the edge, and all four have between 23 and 34 tackles as they share time.
Defensive tackle J.T. Cleveland is the anchor in the middle of the line and nose tackle Gary Lorance is another 290-pound muscleman who gets into backfields.
"You talk about having guys buy in and believe now," Conque said. "Scott's a very aggressive person. His personal makeup, you can see it in the way his kids play - they're very aggressive. They're going to stack the box, they're going to discourage the run or completely take it away."
Third-year starter Will Henry is the key linebacker, although Darius Taylor, a backup, and starter David Kash, who has 6-3, 240-pound size, have made more tackles. Eric Fiello also sees a lot of time.
The Bearkats have gone to more zone-blitz coverage than a year ago, but they can afford to play aggressively up front because cornerbacks Daxton Swanson and Bookie Snead are excellent in man-to-man coverage. Swanson has eight interceptions and eight pass breakups, while Sneed has intercepted three passes and broken up another 12.
The secondary also features the Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year in Darnell Taylor, whose one-on-one tackling is intimidating. His team- high 118 tackles includes 81 solos.
And the Bearkats are so stocked at safety that Kenneth Jenkins, Robert Shaw and Mike Littlejohn rank second, fifth and seventh, respectively, in tackles.
"They're just so good when you get down to the condensed areas," Conque said. "We had a couple of other opportunities, but when you get down to the condensed areas, there's just so much pressure on you and the windows are just so much tighter. They're so athletic."
"They've played great defense," Peveto said. "They're not giving up the big play they were a year ago. They tackle well, they've created turnovers, they've kept their offense on the field."
Southland coaches are impressed with the consistency of Sam Houston State's special teams.
The spotlight belongs to return specialist Brandon Closer, whose kickoff return for a touchdown helped sink Montana State in the playoffs, and punter Matt Foster, who was voted second-team all-conference and has 15 punts of at least 50 yards while averaging 39.4 yards. Closer is averaging 7.1 on punt yards and 23.5 yards on kickoff returns, sharing the load with freshman Keith Blanton.
"They take a lot of pride in special teams," Harper said. "Their punt (coverage), they're going to come after you and put a lot of pressure on the punter. I know they've had a lot of success of blocking punts. And I love their punt return. I love their punt returner (Closner). He understands the ball needs to be caught, he'll go up and get it, wherever and whenever. He probably has saved a lot of yards and won games because of the way he fields the ball.
"Their kickers are good, their kickoff coverage is good."
Kicking duties are split. Craig Alaniz handles the shorter field-goal attempts and is 10-for-11, all inside 40 yards. Ironically, Miguel Antonio is 0-for-4 inside 30 yards, but 5-for-8 outside it, with a long of 42 yards. They are a combined 67-for-69 on extra-point attempts. Closner is their holder.
Sanders, the big guy in the middle of the defensive line on coverage, has three of the Bearkats' five blocked kicks.
Perhaps the Bearkats' improvement from 6-5 in Fritz's first season to 14-0 this season is underscored by turnover margin. They were plus-four last season and are plus-28 this season.
They have 40 takeaways and only 12 turnovers - the result of the aggressive defensive style and not making mistakes offensively while playing a fast style.
Considering North Dakota State has a strong passing attack, Sam Houston State will want to do what it has for most of the season - play with a lead. The Bearkats have trailed after halftime in only two of their games, against New Mexico, when the Lobos kicked a field goal to open overtime, and Stony Brook in the second round of the playoffs.
The Bearkats also figure to have more of the crowd on their side at FC Dallas Stadium. Their Huntsville campus is only 200 miles from Frisco.
"It's just a culmination of their system coming together and confident in their kids believing in what they're doing," Conque said, summing up Sam Houston State. "And they're awfully skilled."