Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz has reiterated throughout the season that tackling and maintaining leverage on defense are points of improvement for the Bearkats. Following Saturday’s 31-23 loss against McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., the story remained the same.
SHSU’s conference loss situates them in the third spot in the Southland Conference and drops them to seventh in the FCS rankings.
Both teams entered Saturday’s matchup chasing first place with 2-0 league records. However, botched coverage in the Bearkats’ secondary surrendered three passing touchdowns from Cowboy quarterback Cody Stroud. SHSU’s front seven was bullied by McNeese’s front line to allow running back Marcus Wiltz to surge for 125 yards.
SHSU kicker Luc Swimberghe drilled three field goals to keep the Bearkats within grasp of McNeese through the third quarter with quarterback Brian Bell as the Bearkats’ sole offensive breath.
“I thought our guys battled,” Fritz said. “We didn’t play real smart all the time. We made some uncharacteristic errors.”
SHSU capitalized inside the red zone on all three trips, but recorded only one touchdown inside the 20.
“There’s just some times we got to get in there in the red zone or across the 50 and we need a big play and score a touchdown,” Fritz said. “One guy blocked the wrong guy. We had a wheel route down there and we just overthrew it by a little bit. We got three field goals but would’ve liked to get a few touchdowns.”
Stroud connected with receiver Ernest Celestie for a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter on a route cornerbacks Desmond Fite and DeAntrey Loche misjudged in double coverage. Fritz returned to his season idiom of leverage and tackling.
“They were doing the inside zone and the stretch play,” Fritz said. “We just didn’t tackle very well. They made the plays and we didn’t.”
Bell maintained a strong passing presence completing 23 of 37 passes for 315 yards. But with Cowboys’ linebacker Hayden Dobbs heading McNeese’s front seven, Bell received little insurance on the ground game from running backs Timothy Flanders and Keshawn Hill.
Following a mere 83-yards rushing effort against the Cardinals in week six, the senior All-American scrounged a mere 22-yards against McNeese with SHSU’s front line unable to split a middle seam through the defensive front.
Bell connected with tight end Deon Hutchinson for a 3-yard touchdown pass to open the fourth quarter to narrow McNeese’s lead 21-16. Stroud drove downfield, tearing away at SHSU’s secondary to extend their lead 26-16 with 10 minutes left in the match.
Looking to respond, Bell steered SHSU to their 38-yard line when cornerback Gabe Hamner picked off Bell’s pass that led to a field goal for a two-possession cushion.
SHSU will return to Huntsville and continue conference play against Northwestern State Saturday at Bowers Stadium.