Sam Houston State’s 50-21 win against Southern Utah Saturday preserved the Bearkats’ strength over Big Sky opponents, but more importantly it reinvigorated a lifeless offense that has sputtered since week six.
The Bearkats tallied 531 offensive yards to overcome a 10-0 deficit in the first quarter with senior running back Timothy Flanders commanding the ground attack with 176 rushing yards.
With Central Arkansas’ 49-31 win to close out the regular season in hindsight, senior quarterback Brian Bell cued the Bearkats’ 30-point run with a 32-yard touchdown completion to receiver Chance Nelson to narrow Southern Utah’s lead 10-7.
Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb said SHSU’s rush game baffled his defensive scheme.
“When we took control of the game at 10-0, they went on a 75-yard drive sparked mainly by running the football, good balance and at the last second they have an uncanny ability to take half of a defender and run through an arm tackle,” Lamb said.
An 18-yard punt return from senior return specialist Torrance Williams situated Bell and company with ideal field position at midfield to commence the second quarter. Offensive coordinator Doug Ruse sprinkled a series of dives and short-yardage completions to inch the Bearkats to the 3-yard line for running back Keshawn Hill to cap off the drive with a touchdown rush and a 13-10 lead.
Saturday’s victory marked the Bearkats’ return to a dimensional playbook with the run and pass schemes finding leverage over a defense that has stifled the ground game throughout the Big Sky Conference. SHSU head coach Willie Fritz said aggressiveness on the lines opened seams to expose Southern Utah’s linebacker trio and keep the Thunderbirds two-dimensional.
“Offensive line, they did a very good job,” he said. “We put in a couple of new schemes in and our play calling was good.”
Southern Utah regained possession to initiate the second half with a 23-10 deficit. The Bearkats’ front seven forced a quick seven-snap series with Bell adding to SHSU’s cushion with a touchdown completion to tight end Ragan Henderson.
Turnovers worried the Bearkats’ with Southern Utah narrowing SHSU’s lead to 10 after a 39-yard fumble return from defensive lineman Robert Torgerson to kindle a spark of life on the Thunderbirds’ sideline.
Yet, the presence of Bearkat linebacker Tanner Brock and defensive back Michael Wade ceased Southern Utah’s momentum, as the defensive duet totaled 21 tackles combined.
“I think we met the challenge,” SHSU defensive end Andrew Weaver said. “We had a good preparation at practice. The coaching staff, they did a great job of preparing us and we met that challenge.”
SHSU’s defense struggled penetrating the lines throughout the regular season but were able to regain leverage against Southern Utah quarterback Aaron Cantu, who threw 48 passes for only 289 yards.
“I think Sam Houston did a nice job of taking away the first and second read,” Lamb said. “The pass rush was impending and the quarterback just didn’t have much vision and looked to burn the ball down field.”
A pair of Flanders’ touchdowns, complemented by a touchdown from Hill, stifled any hope of a comeback from Southern Utah.
Saturday’s win means that SHSU will square off against Southland Conference champions Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., with the FCS playoffs quarterfinal spot up for grabs.
Flanders said the postseason represents a series of new season with each round, and the Bearkats’ are seeing the run as going undefeated each “season.”
“The way I look at it, the playoffs is just a one-game season,” Flanders said. “We just got done playing our first season. Southeastern is season number two. We got to come ready to play.”