The last thing a football team wants to hear is, “well, you almost won.” Considering where the Bearkats were a year ago for the Battle of the Piney Woods, those words can almost qualify as a victory within their 31-28, heartbreaking loss on Saturday.
Last season’s contest was actually not a contest in any sense of the word. The Lumberjacks cruised to a 42-3 victory on the arm of Southland Conference superstar Jeremy Moses, who heaved the ball for 372 yards and five touchdowns, and SHSU never recovered. The blowout was just one of four Bearkat losses in the last six games of a dismal year that ended in yet another losing season in Huntsville.
Heading into this year’s rivalry game with Stephen F. Austin at Reliant Stadium, however, SHSU actually had a chance to do the unthinkable: to defeat the defending SLC champs. The Lumberjacks and the Bearkats were first and second in the SLC, respectively, and the winning team would separate itself from the loser as the team to beat in the league.
Unfortunately for SHSU, there was a lot of history repeating itself early on. The bright side is how the Kats fought through adversity to make a game out of it. Nonetheless, just like any given football game, there was a good mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Once again, Tim Flanders was a major force in the Bearkats’ offense. He ran for yet another 100-yard game– now his sixth in a row– and earned his 10th and 11th touchdowns of his very impressive season.
Richard Sincere also continues to be a major playmaker on the offense. He finished with 107 yards from scrimmage, including 72 on the ground, and a touchdown. He’s proving to be SHSU’s version of Dexter McCluster: a hybrid player who has the ability to score anytime he touches the ball.
The way quarterback Brian Bell battled in the fourth quarter was something else the Kats should be proud of. Through three quarters, Bell completed just 12 of 22 passes for 92 yards and was quite ineffective. With the game on the line, he persevered and stood tall in the midst of the experienced SFA defense.
The poised Bell threw for an additional 85 yards on 12-16 passing and a touchdown in the game’s final period. You’ve got to appreciate his never-quit attitude. The freshman almost won this game for his team, a bright sign for the future.
SHSU’s run defense was also tremendous once again. The unit held SFA to 29 yards rushing on 18 carries, an average of less than two yards per carry. The league’s top run defense may have been the key in keeping this game close.
Throughout the game, tackling was a major issue for SHSU. Many times, the Kats would limit SFA’s offense to plays that should have equaled maybe two or three yards, which instead turned into six-seven yard gains because of the poor tackling. Football is a game of inches, so giving up any extra yards will serve to be crucial in the end.
Some of the officiating was skeptical at times, as well. For both teams, there were a lot of inconsistencies in foul calling, which ultimately played a deciding factor in the game. Pass interference would be called on one play, but in more blatant situations, there was no call. The missed call on the SHSU fumble before the half was costly. The Kats were gaining momentum and lost out on a chance at some points because of the call.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for SFA fans was the offense’s discipline in big moments of the game. On three different occasions, the Jacks lined up to go for it on the fourth down, when a delay-of-game penalty or a false start pushed them back five yards. The game might have been very different had those penalties been negated and SFA converted.
SHSU’s pass defense was atrocious in the first quarter. Moses completed nine of 10 pass attempts for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s first 15 minutes. Even when his receivers weren’t open, he placed the ball masterfully where only a Lumberjack player could catch the ball. This put the Kats in a big, 14-point hole early on.
The Lumberjacks were especially bad in the special teams. SFA came into the game with the league’s best return team on punts and kickoffs. The way the game played out, anyone watching would have thought this was a feat of SHSU. Return specialist Brandon Closner was great. He averaged close to 25 yards per punt return and 18 per kick return, a total of 214 return yards in the game.
SFA’s special teams coverage prevented the team from blowing the Kats out of the water. On fourth and six, Bryan Randolph fooled the Jacks into thinking he was punter Matt Foster, and completed a 24-yard pass to keep the drive alive. SHSU went on to score, and made another big play thereafter. On the ensuing kickoff, the Bearkats caught SFA sleeping and recovered a surprise onside kick. The drive that followed resulted in another touchdown, which tied the game at 14. These plays don’t happen if the Jacks win the special teams battle.