93rd Annual Battle of the Piney Woods a ‘must-win’

There is a lot on the line for Sam Houston State University football as the Bearkats head to Houston Saturday to battle the rival Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks in the 93rd annual Battle of the Piney Woods. SHSU will enter NRG Stadium just 2-2 this season, but they are riding a seven-game winning streak against SFA.

What’s at stake?

Head coach K.C. Keeler said a couple weeks ago, “Our backs are against the wall” after the team’s devastating loss to the Nicholls Colonels on Sept. 22. The defeat in Louisiana meant the Kats started the season 1-2—not the figure that anyone was hoping for when the 2018 campaign began. The pair of early losses basically means that the Bearkats are in a position where they need to run the table the rest of the season. Now with an even .500 record, every game matters, and there will be particular emphasis on Saturday’s matchup as SHSU looks to continue their recent dominance against the Lumberjacks.

The Kats finished the 2017 season 12-2, going 8-1 against Southland Conference opponents with their loss coming at the hands of the University of Central Arkansas Bears—which the Bearkats avenged Saturday with an overtime victory. SHSU began last season a perfect 2-0 in non-conference play before picking up a dominating 66-17 victory against the Nicholls Colonels. A similar schedule to start 2018 resulted in that alarming 1-2 record (with losses coming against North Dakota and Nicholls).

SHSU’s perfect 3-0 start in 2017 was thwarted by a loss to UCA before beating SFA the following weekend and winning out the remainder of their regular season schedule. The Bearkats entered the FCS (Football Championship Series) playoffs and beat South Dakota and a tough Kennesaw State team to advance to the semi-finals.

The road this season will not be quite so free of adversity as SHSU will have to fight for their playoff spot with every contest they play.

Axe the Jacks

SFA comes into this contest 1-3 overall in 2018. SHSU has won every matchup against the Jacks since 2011, outscoring them 318-202. With the resignation of head coach Clint Conque at the end of last year, SFA has been under the control of interim head coach Jeff Byrd who also serves as the defensive coordinator. After surrendering 63 points to the Bearkats in 2016, SFA held SHSU to 27 in Byrd’s first season last year. Despite being 1-3 to open up 2018, SFA has held their opponents to under 31 points in three of the season’s first four contests.

On the other side of the ball, SHSU’s offense is 2-0 this season when scoring at least 30 points, and 0-2 when they fail to do so. What does this mean? One of the Bearkats keys to the game is to put 30 points on the scoreboard Saturday and force senior quarterback Foster Sawyer and the rest of SFA’s offense to match that figure.

The Quarterback Situation

All evidence suggests that redshirt freshman Ty Brock will be the starter for SHSU. Junior Mike Dare scuffled to begin the year, and after losing to Nicholls Keeler decided it was time for a switch. Brock took advantage of his first collegiate start, throwing for 305 yards and a touchdown. His mobility both in and out of the pocket played a key role in the win, as well. He picked up 73 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground.

“When they told me I was going to be the starter, that’s probably the most nervous I was all week,” Brock said. “As the week went on I just got this feeling of ‘I’m going to get to play football,’ which for me is a huge blessing.”

Brock’s agility seemed to open up the playbook a bit for offensive coordinator Ryan Carty. While SHSU fans are not used to watching mobile quarterbacks the last few years, the idea of seeing a QB use his legs might be reminiscent of former quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe’s 26-yard touchdown run in last year’s 27-16 victory over SFA.

SHSU’s offense has not been the potent machine Bearkat fans have grown accustomed to seeing, but Brock is coming off a successful start that the program can only hope was the start of a turnaround this season. The dual-threat the freshman provides in the pocket is going to give SFA a different look at the Kats than the past few seasons when the Lumberjack defense looked across the line at Briscoe.

The Goal

“If you want to get to 9-2, you have to get to 2-2,”Keeler said following the overtime victory over UCA. “We got to 2-2, now we have to worry about getting to 3-2.”

The only thing standing between Keeler’s program and a winning record are the Lumberjacks. A 9-2 season would put the perennial national champion contending Bearkats back in the hunt for a decent seed in the FCS Playoffs. All eyes are now on one of the oldest rivalries in college football as SHSU looks for an eighth consecutive victory over their foes.

The Battle of the Piney Woods kicks off Saturday at 1 p.m. at NRG Stadium in Houston.

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