Published January 13, 2015
Any time there's a rematch between two heavyweight teams, especially those who already played for a championship the year before, everyone expects an even better contest. That's just human nature.
But before one starts wishing for a better performance than last year's 17-6 slugfest - in which Sam Houston State totaled 210 yards and North Dakota State 235 yards - let's just pump the brakes a little bit.
"I've said this before and I'll say it again," SHSU coach Willie Fritz said. "I think that Coach (Craig) Bohl (of North Dakota State) and I share similar philosophies on how to run a football program, and sometimes it's not glamorous. I know some people like those teams that throw the ball 50, 60, 70 times a game. That's not how we do it. They kind of look at the two teams that are playing for the FBS national championship and seems like they have the same type of formula."
There's no denying that fans, players and coaches alike expect another defensive battle. Or maybe, people expect a battle like that of what the statistics say, one of the top-ranked NDSU defense versus the high-scoring, explosive Sam Houston offense.
Then again, maybe not.
"Anybody that's still playing now is pretty darned solid," Fritz said. "You know, I really got a lot of respect for our defense, obviously. You look at stats and two of the teams we play are in the top three in FBS football in total offense, in Baylor and Texas A&M. So that also kind of plays into the statistics, as well. So, no, it's not going to be just Sam Houston's offense or North Dakota State's defense. It's going to be their team versus the Sam Houston team."
Build it up however you wish, as a potential FCS instant classic, a battle between two of the FCS' top head coaches, or a battle between one team searching to join the ranks of rare, FCS repeat glory, or one team searching to make its own history. Either way, the preparation and focus for the game probably started long ago.
"There are a lot of festivities that are for the student-athlete, and so we want to make sure that we are focused on the game plan at hand before we are able to get down there," Bohl said. "Because once you get down there, between different luncheons and pictures and press conferences and other activities, there's really not near as much time to really get focused on the game."
Here's a breakdown of Sam Houston State (11-3):
Offensively, Sam Houston State has been one of the most dangerous units in the FCS over the last two years. At the start of this season, however, the Bearkats had to adjust to new offensive coordinator Doug Ruse.
After a slow start, Ruse quickly ignited the offense, utilizing a triple- option-esque, pistol-style formation. During a crucial seven-game win streak in the regular season, the Bearkats scored 41 points or more in each victory. They enter the national title game averaging 463 yards per game and 41.9 points per game.
"We've got almost a new offensive staff," Fritz said. "My offensive coordinator and two of my assistants that were here last year did a great job for us. They took new positions. So when I look to hire a replacement, I wanted to find somebody that had some option background and did things similar to what we did. But also, we wanted to try to improve our passing attack.
"Last season, we were a very efficient passing attack, but we got into some 3rd-and-long situations and 2nd-and-long and people knew we had to throw the ball and we had some difficulties. I was lucky to hire Doug Ruse, he was at Western Illinois University, I watched him firsthand in 2010 take it to us."
Everything the Bearkats do offensively begins first with quarterback Brian Bell and running back Timothy Flanders.
Bell, who is the program's all-time winningest starting quarterback with a career record of 30-7, has certainly thrived with another year of experience under his belt. The junior has passed for 2,460 yards and 24 touchdowns - versus just seven interceptions - and completed 61.6 percent of his throws in 14 games this season. He's also rushed for 354 yards and six touchdowns.
Even more scary? Take away the contests versus FBS Baylor and Texas A&M and he's thrown 22 TDs with just four interceptions against FCS opponents this season.
Flanders, a consensus All-America back, has rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of the Bearkats' 14 games this season and averages 113 rushing yards per contest. He's totaled 1,589 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. Plus, the junior ranks second in the FCS in active career rushing touchdowns with 52. When Flanders starts to find a groove, the rest of the offense is nearly impossible to slow down.
"When Tim gets going, that opens up our whole offense," Fritz said. "He's had another great year for us. And you know, that's a huge part of our offense. When you can throw the ball, we are going to have to throw it on first down as well, and there are going to have to be situations in which run down and they're playing the run and packing the box. Have to be able to spread 'em out and throw it as well. They both complement each other without question."
Other playmakers who can't be overlooked include Richard Sincere, Trey Diller and Chance Nelson. Sincere must be accounted for when running the "Wildcat" package in the backfield. He's rushed for 574 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games this season.
Diller and Nelson are easily Bell's primary receiving weapons and although they average 62 and 47 receiving yards per game, respectively, both strike for big plays. In 14 games, Diller has hauled in 58 catches for 881 yards and four touchdowns and averages 15.2 yards per catch compared to Nelson's 662 receiving yards, nine touchdowns and breakaway 20.1-yards-per-catch average.
Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Kaleb Hopson anchors an offensive line which has allowed just five sacks on Bell this season. Hopson enters the title game with 48 career starts for an offense which holds onto the ball for 34 minutes per game, good for the No. 4 ranking in the FCS.
Probably the best news for Sam Houston State's defense entering the title game is that it faces a Bison team which gets all the press and all the attention on defense.
Few realize the SHSU defense ranks better against the run than NDSU, allowing 84.1 rushing yards per game. Only four opponents have rushed for over 100 yards - two of those were Texas A&M and Baylor, and the other were FCS Southeastern Louisiana - in a 70-0 blowout - and triple option Cal Poly. The unit has been so stout against the run that it has allowed a total of seven rushing touchdowns, and only two of those came versus FCS competition.
Darnell Taylor, a hard-hitting safety who took home the Southland Conference defensive player of the year award for the second consecutive season, has registered 100 tackles, including 68 solo, in 14 games. His twin brother, Darius, a linebacker in the 4-2-5 unit, leads the team with 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
"We are a pressure team, we get a lot of people in the box," Fritz said about his blitz-heavy attitude. "We are going to try to make it play action and throw the ball deep and throw some fader routes and get some 2nd-and-10s and get you out of here, how you really want to call the game. That's what we do and we have personnel that we are able to do it."
The linebacker corps and secondary in general is very athletic. Jesse Beauchamp (92 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) seems to be in on just about every play with Darius. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Dax Swanson, Robert Shaw and Bookie Snead can cover receivers like white on rice. Together, the three upperclassmen have accounted for 12 of the team's 18 interceptions this season, each with four interceptions.
The Bearkats have success versus the run game and up front because the secondary is known for tough "bump and run" coverage and its ability to match the height and speed of the receivers they cover.
The Bearkats allow 20.2 points per game and 325.8 yards per contest.
The defensive line might not have any absolute studs, but the unit knows how to play collectively. Up front, many key players rotate and stay fresh, such as J.T. Cleveland, Gary Lorance, Jarrett Brown, Andrew Weaver and Preston Sanders. Sam Houston ranks third in the FCS in third down efficiency at 28.28 percent, partly thanks to the defensive line's ability to shut down the run and force difficult down-and-distance situations.
"Much has been talked about their offense and defensively you've got a lot of skill guys," Bohl said. "You've got an All-American safety who is at the point of attack. Great tackling group; I don't know if we played a better tackling defense all year long; I know we haven't. A lot of speed on defense, a lot of times that's big plays and structurally the guys are in the right spot."
Lorance and Cleveland have accounted for 21.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks this season, and Swanson now holds the school record for career interceptions with 14.
As is the case in most championship games, special teams could play a huge role for the Bearkats. When it comes to the game of field position and getting points when needed, Sam Houston State has to feel good about its place-kicker, Miguel Antonio, and punter, Matt Foster.
Antonio, a senior, has converted 18-of-22 field goal attempts for an 81.8 success rate. He's also been very reliable with extra points, connecting on 72-of-73 attempts this season. Antonio is accurate from short and medium length, including 8-of-10 from distances of 20 to 29 yards and 6-of-7 from 30 to 39 yards.
He ranks ninth in the FCS and first on his team in scoring with nine points per game, just one year after he lost the starting job and missed 7-of-12 field goal attempts.
"The biggest thing I've seen this year (with Antonio) is confidence in himself," special teams coach Robby Discher told the Houston Chronicle. "This year, he knows he's going to make it. He has that look in his eye that gives (the coaches) confidence and gives his teammates confidence in him. He truly thinks he's a good kicker, and he is a good kicker."
Diller handles both punt return and kick return duties, and although he has not scored a special teams touchdown this season, the senior has been effective. He has 32 punt returns for 354 yards, an average of 11 yards per return. On kick returns, he's brought back 20 for 468 yards - with a long of 59 - for an average of 23 yards per return.
Senior "punter from down under" Matt Foster, from Melbourne, Australia, ranks 12th in the FCS with a 43.2-yard average. The oldest player on the team at 26, Foster has 16 boots of 50-plus yards, only four touchbacks and 19 of his punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. None of his punts has been blocked this season.
The Bearkats have been solid against punt return yardage defense, allowing a stingy 5.3 yards per return and Antonio has 29 touchbacks on kickoffs and opponents average 17.8 yards per kickoff return, good for No. 20 in the FCS.
Revenge, another year of experience at key positions and surviving an absolutely brutal schedule has fueled Sam Houston State further than any pre-game speech.
As if losing last year's national title in the team's home state of Texas wasn't enough motivation - and the fact that Sam Houston was shut down, didn't score an offensive touchdown and totaled just 210 yards - just being able to make it through a stifling schedule would have been impressive.
This season, SHSU returned 15 players on offense and defense who each have 20 or more career starts and it brought back some of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Guys like Weaver, the Taylor twins, Bell and Flanders, who helped guide the team through a regular-season schedule with eight road games and just three home contests, plus two FBS games versus top-notch opponents.
And it's been the way the group has dealt with adversity this season which has made this second straight national title game run even more remarkable.
Make no mistake, North Dakota State's defense presents an extremely difficult task for the Sam Houston State offense. However, all the Bearkats have heard in the weeks leading up to the rematch has been about the Bison defense and how few teams rarely has success against the group and how it shut them down last season.
If Sam Houston gives up any yards, it cannot come on the ground. It must come through the air. The Bearkats needs to make NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen beat them with his arm, and not with the team's physical, grinding run attack.
Expect Fritz to have some tricks saved up his sleeve after the Bison faked a punt last year, giving them all the momentum and, eventually, the key to victory.