Bearkats to Face Toughest Test Yet Against Bitter Rival SFA

NRG Stadium, The home of the Houston Texans, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and Superbowl LI.

A stadium that can hold 71,795, and this Saturday, will host one of the oldest rivalries in college football, the Battle of the Piney Woods.

The contest features the SHSU Bearkats and the SFA Lumberjacks.

Since 2010, the game has been featured at NRG, but the rivalry has existed since 1923, and SHSU has dominated the series for the most part with a record of 53-35-2. The Bearkats also have the edge in NRG with a 5-1 record, with the only loss in the inaugural game at the new venue.

After a dominating 52-16 rout of the HBU Huskies over the weekend, the number two-ranked Bearkats look for a second straight win in the Space city.

SFA is also preparing for the game after a 41-30 victory over fellow Southland Conference opponent the Abilene Christian Wildcats.

Both teams are even more motivated to win the bout this year, with SFA on a three game winning streak, and the Bearkats being undefeated, neither side wants their first taste of conference defeat at the hands of the other.

“This is the best team we’ve faced all season,” SHSU Head coach K.C. Keeler said. “They could be the best team we face all year in the regular season.”

The Bearkats boast the one of the best offenses in the FCS, as they are the league leaders in total offense with 632.7 yards per game, as well as being ranked second in pass offense and eighth in rushing.

“Our whole offense is based on the philosophy that we’ll take what they give us,” Keeler said. “We have no problems if we have to throw it or run it 100 times. We have a great group of skill kids, so we don’t mind getting the ball in their hands.”

The Kats’ offense was missing one of their key skill players in their game against HBU. Junior running back Corey Avery sat out due to a slight hamstring injury.

“If it had been the national championship, Avery could have played,” Keeler said. “But we have really good backs behind him, and it was better for his long term health to give him the week off. He is 100 percent, and ready to get back on the field.”

One offensive player who will look to have another big performance for the Bearkats is junior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, who has averaged 345 yards and 3 touchdowns per game this season.

“Jeremiah has played at a real high level, which doesn’t surprise me,” Keeler said. “He has a great command of the game. He has a good idea how to run this offense.”

The quiet rock for the Bearkat offense has been the offensive line, which has allowed just two sacks, and 10 tackles for a loss.

Another storyline to keep an eye on during the Battle of the Piney Woods is the battle in the trenches. As previously mentioned, SHSU’s offensive line has been spectacular through three games, but they will face a tough Lumberjack defensive line on Saturday that ranks near the top.

SFA’s defensive line has an FCS fourth best 15 sacks and 30 tackles for a loss through four games this season, as well as recovering seven of their nine forced fumbles.

“SFA has really good personnel,” Keeler said. “They’re very athletic. They get to you real quick. The entire defense exerts so much pressure. They come after you.”

As a result of the pressure that the defensive front provides, SFA currently has the ninth best run defense, allowing 91 rush yards per game.

Their coverage through the air is a different story.

SFA has allowed an average of 422.3 passing yards per game this season.

“When you bring extra bodies, you create space for the receivers,” Keeler said. “It creates an interesting game of cat and mouse where they’re trying to rush us down, and we’re trying to get the ball to our receivers before that.”

SFA’s offense has also done most of their work through the air; as the Lumberjacks’ pass offense is ranked 14.

“There could be 100 balls in the air between the two of us this weekend,” Keeler said. “They have two very good quarterbacks and very athletic receivers. They’ve done a nice job moving the ball through the air.”

Most teams have one quarterback that takes the reigns of the offense, but that isn’t the case for SFA. They have two quarterbacks that have shared the national, with seniors Hunter Taylor and Zach Conque. They have both earned Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors this season.

“Both their kids are more throwers,” Keeler said. “Conque will run in critical situations. There isn’t a huge difference in how we have to play depending on who is in, except on third and shorts, when the 6’6” Conque can just power the ball over the line.”

SFA’s offense, passing and rushing has faltered when it matters most, scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

The Lumberjacks boast an 88 percent scoring rate in the red zone, but they have only punched the ball in 50 percent of the time.

“That’s the whole thing with being a pass heavy offense,” Keeler said. “The field narrows down, and you really get forced to run. If you don’t have as much practice with it, you will have a hard time.”

This pass first style suits the Bearkat defense, which has been working all season to make the other offense feel like only one thing is working for them.

One place the Bearkat defense feels there is room for improvement is the turnover department, where the team only has two fumble recoveries and no interceptions three games into the season.

“We would obviously like to have more turnovers this far into the season,” Keeler said. “We’ve been doing drills in practice, and we’re hoping that if we can dial up the pressure on whoever they have at quarterback, we can force some errant throws, and take advantage of that.”

SHSU believes special teams could be the last 10 percent they need to go from being a good team to a great team, and challenging for the national championship this year.

“We’re ranked high in all the special teams categories in our league,” Keeler said. “ That speaks to what Coach Segler has been able to do and the emotion and energy he’s brought to the group.”

A key player to watch for the Bearkats is freshman wide receiver and special teams star Jaylen Harris, who returned a kickoff 70 yards against HBU, and has made some huge tackles as well.

“Jaylen has been just outstanding,” Keeler said. “He’s been what we thought he would be, he’s dangerous. People will start changing the way they kick because he’s back there.”

Special Teams is even more important in the BOTPW, with the Bearkats coming out on top in 2015’s contest thanks to two punt return touchdowns, and a field goal.

“Special teams is important,” Keeler said. “The kids know it will be a big part of this game. We’ve gotten dramatically better on special teams this year.”

Statistics, trends, and all the analytics in the world don’t mean much when it comes to a rivalry game.

SFA was 0-4, and the Bearkats were 1-2, and both teams played a stellar contest.

“A lot of times you can throw the numbers out,” Keeler said. “Both teams are exceptionally motivated to win, because it’s a rivalry game. When you look at the numbers after the game, you’ll think they don’t make any sense, because everyone over preforms in these games.”

The Bearkats look to extend their Battle of the Piney Woods win streak to a record tying six games and keep their undefeated season alive on Saturday at 3 pm at NRG Stadium.

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