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Sam Houston State back in business mode

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Willie Fritz has one of those great raspy voices that blends so perfectly with the enthusiasm of a football coach.

It's the kind others love to emulate, as Sam Houston State backup quarterback Greg Sprowls did with his head coach during the Bearkats team's talent show in preseason camp.

Even Fritz got a kick out of seeing what others see in him.

And it underscored something that Fritz has enjoyed all season. His Bearkats know when to have a good time and when to be serious.

With the Thanksgiving holiday over, the Bearkats are in business mode again and hope to be that way through the New Year. As the only unbeaten team in the FCS and ranked No. 1, the bull's-eye is on them as they begin chase of the national championship. Rest assured, the fun will come with the victories.

Top-seeded Sam Houston State will jump onto the Road to Frisco next Saturday when they host Big South champion Stony Brook in a second-round game in Huntsville. The top-seeded Bearkats (11-0) had a first-round bye while the Seawolves rallied past Albany, 31-28.

"We've won most of our games convincingly, but now we're going up against higher-level competition. Everybody in the playoffs is a good team," Fritz said.

"The thing that's going to be a lot of fun is comparing ourselves to other regions. And hopefully we'll get a chance to prepare ourselves for quite a few weeks to sit where we sit as far as the landscape of FCS football across the nation. You know it all comes down to blocking and tackling, and who has a good game plan and who has better players."

Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders has scored a Southland Conference-record 22 touchdowns this season.
It might seem odd, but Sam Houston State may have more to prove in the playoffs than some of the other four seeded teams, even some of the unseeded teams among the 16 still alive. The Bearkats are relatively young with only 12 seniors, haven't appeared in the playoffs since 2004 and carry the banner of a Southland Conference whose teams were a combined 1-6 in the last five years.

But with four first-team All-SLC players on each side of the ball, and 18 who earned a form of all-conference honors, this isn't a typical SLC team. The Bearkats not only led the conference in rushing offense and defense for the second straight season, but they are among the nation's best in both statistics.

Behind Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) finalist Tim Flanders and wide receiver Richard Sincere, who makes big plays out of the Wild Bearkat formation, Sam Houston State's 250.1 rushing yards per game rank seventh in the FCS. They're No. 1 with 39.5 points per game and clearly keep making the right halftime adjustments, having outscored opponents 142-17 in the third quarter.

Defensively, the Bearkats, with stalwart J.T. Cleveland getting it started up front, have surrendered only 59 rushing yards and 12.6 points per game - both national bests. They have allowed a mere five rushing touchdowns.

"The No. 1 thing we emphasize is turnover/takeaway," said Fritz, whose team's turnover margin is plus-24, which ranks second nationally. "Last season, we did a great job of having super ball security and not turning the ball over, but we didn't get as many takeaways as we wanted. And we really worked on that. In spring football and preseason and all throughout the season, we've done a really nice job of getting a bunch of takeaways week after week."

"Everybody here has been focused," said Flanders, who has rushed for 1,133 yards and scored a SLC-record 22 touchdowns this season. "We're not getting a big head about being undefeated, we're just taking it each week at a time. But now, since we're at the playoffs, there's (no losing). We either go undefeated all the way or we're losing and done. We have to think about each playoff game as a one-game season."

Next Saturday's one-game season centers around the Bearkats finding answers for Stony Brook's explosive offense. Seawolves running backs Miguel Maysonet (Big South single-season record 1,560 yards) and Brock Jackolski (1,332) are both well over 1,000-yard seasons for a second straight year.

Still, the Bearkats will emphasize what they do best more than what Stony Brook does. It's worked well all season.

PRESIDENTIAL GREETING

Towson University is touting how its football team didn't have to win the CAA Football title to get a chance to celebrate with President Barack Obama at the White House.

President Barack Obama poses with Towson head coach Rob Ambrose and members of the Tigers football team on Saturday.
Instead the prez came to Towson.

President Obama and the First Family were part of the 3,119 at Towson Center Arena on Saturday for the Tigers men's basketball team's 66-46 loss to Oregon State.

Oregon State coach Craig Robinson is the brother of First Lady Michelle Obama.

The Towson football team posed for photos on court with President Obama at the basketball game. The Tigers have made an eight-game improvement this season, from 1-10 last year to 9-2.

WINNERS IN A RUSH

Quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke of Old Dominion and Nathan Dick of Central Arkansas put up big numbers on Saturday, but the key to winning in the FCS playoffs just might be a big ground game.

All four first-round winners set the tone by at least doubling the rushing totals of their opponent.

James Madison had a 244-119 yard edge on Eastern Kentucky with quarterback Justin Thorpe (93 yards), Dae'Quan Scott (75) and Jordan Anderson (71) combining in a three-headed monster.

Old Dominion outgained Norfolk State 103-43, limiting the Spartans to 1.5 yards per carry.

Stony Brook doubled up Albany 164-82 as Jackolski was the only 100-yard rusher with 103.

Central Arkansas' advantage on Tennessee Tech was 120-58 as Jackie Hinton rushed for 87 yards.

PLAYOFF GAME BALLS

James Madison's Cameron Starke missed his first field-goal attempt, but came back to make his final two, including the game-winning 35-yarder that lifted the Dukes past Eastern Kentucky, 20-17, in the first-ever meeting between the two programs. Next up for the Dukes (8-4) is No. 2 seed North Dakota State (10-1) ... Heinicke, a freshman quarterback, threw for 269 yards and five touchdowns as Old Dominion rolled past new cross-town rival Norfolk State, 35-18, in their first-ever playoff game. The Monarchs (10-2) visit No. 3 seed Georgia Southern (10-1) in the second round ... Stony Brook overcame Albany's upset bid, 31-28, as Jackolski scored three touchdowns in a span of 6 minutes, 30 seconds of the third and fourth quarters, erasing a 28-10 deficit. He had 232 all-purpose yards. But Donald Porter gets a game ball as well for his nine tackles, interception and tipped ball in the Seawolves' end zone that Dominick Reyes intercepted to seal the win. The Seawolves (9-3) next play Sam Houston State. They have won nine straight games, which is tied for the second-longest streak in the FCS behind Sam Houston State's 13 ... Dick, a redshirt senior, completed 23-of-29 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for another score, in Central Arkansas' 34-14 win at Tennessee Tech. The Bears (9-3) will try to extend an eight-game winning streak at No. 4 seed Montana (9-2) in the second round.

ATTENDANCE FIGURES

Eastern Kentucky outbidding James Madison for a home playoff game didn't end so well, and not just because the Colonels were knocked out of the playoffs.

The fans in Richmond, Ky., were so impressed that an embarrassing crowd of 2,388 turned out for the nationally televised game on ESPNU.

Incredibly, the OVC school, which averaged 7,267 fans for six home games in the regular season, outbid James Madison, which averaged 25,002 in five home games, for the right to host their first-round match-up.

Ticket sales usually plummet during the FCS playoffs for a variety of reasons, including their higher price, a lack of free tickets for students, a short buildup to the games, the holiday season being underway and colder weather.

Still, outside EKU, the playoffs got off to a solid start.

The Norfolk State-ODU game, a first-ever match-up between teams whose campuses are five miles apart, drew the regular-season average of 19,818 to sold-out Foreman Field. Albany at Stony Brook drew 8,286, up from the Seawolves' regular-season average of 5,121. Central Arkansas at Tennessee Tech drew 6,115, down from the Golden Eagles' regular-season average of 8,866.

FCS AWARDS

One voter's ballot for the 2011 FCS awards:

Walter Payton Award (FCS outstanding player)

1. Jonathan Grimes, William & Mary, RB

2. Bo Levi Mitchell, Eastern Washington, QB

3. Shakir Bell, Indiana State, RB

4. Aaron Mellette, Elon, WR

5. Kevin Decker, New Hampshire, QB

Buck Buchanan Award (FCS defensive outstanding player)

1. L.J. Fort, Northern Iowa, LB

2. Matt Evans, New Hampshire, LB

3. Adrian Hamilton, Prairie View A&M, DE

4. Justin Bethel, Presbyterian, CB

5. Brent Russell, Georgia Southern, NT

Jerry Rice Award (FCS freshman of the year)

1. Terrance West, Towson, RB

2. Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion, QB

3. Chuck Dibilo, Princeton, RB

4. D'Vonte Grant, North Carolina A&T, LB

5. Austin Sumner, South Dakota State, QB

Eddie Robinson Award (FCS coach of the year)

1. Rob Ambrose, Towson

2. Willie Fritz, Sam Houston State

3. Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion

4. Kevin Kelly, Georgetown

5. Chris Creighton, Drake

All four awards are presented by The Sports Network and sponsored by Fathead.com.

JUST THE PICKS

Just win, baby. That's the playoff mentality.

This Weekend's Record: 6-0 (1.000)

Season Record: 579-198 (.745)

Saturday, Dec. 3

NCAA Division I Second Round

All Times ET; All Games on ESPN3

X-projected winner

Old Dominion (10-2) at X-No. 3 Georgia Southern (9-2), 1 p.m.

Maine (8-3) at X-Appalachian State (8-3), 2 p.m.

New Hampshire (8-3) at X-Montana State (9-2), 2:05 p.m.

Central Arkansas (9-3) at X-No. 4 Montana (9-2), 2:05 p.m.

Stony Brook (9-3) at X-No. 1 Sam Houston State (11-0), 3 p.m.

Lehigh (10-1) at X-Towson (9-2), 3:30 p.m.

James Madison (8-4) at X-No. 2 North Dakota State (10-1), 4 p.m.

X-Wofford (8-3) at No. 5 Northern Iowa (9-2), 5 p.m.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.