Villanova struggled early on Saturday before finally finishing the job against the Liberty University in the NCAA Division I Football Playoffs second round. With Sam Houston State upsetting 3-seed Jacksonville State earlier on Saturday, the Wildcats were able to settle in at home to host the Houston-area school this weekend.
SHSU has a record of 10-4 this season and shared the Southland Conference title with SE Louisiana, a school they knocked off in the first round, 21-17. They have four losses on the season, to LSU, Eastern Washington, D-II Colorado State-Pueblo, and Northwestern State.
We know K.C. Keeler, but the Beatkats are new for us, so we reached out to the Huntsville (TX) Item's Sam Houston State football writer, Paul Tierney (@Paul_Tierney3) to catch us up on the (with a K) 'Kats.
(1) Games at EWU and (moreso) at LSU aren't easy, but a home loss to Colorado St-Pueblo is probably one of the worst among FCS playoff teams. What caused the Bearkats to struggle at the start of this season, and what has changed as they came down the homestretch to transform into a team that finished the season on top of the Southland Conference?
The CSU-Pueblo game was just a culmination of K.C. Keeler and his staff trying to do too much with this team too early on in the season. Last offseason, the Bearkats lost Brian Bell (program's all-time winningest QB) and running back Timothy Flanders (Southland Conference's all-time leading rusher) to graduation, as well as their head coach Willie Fritz to Georgia Southern. There were only four starters from spring practice that started against EWU in week one. The offense was changed dramatically when Keeler took the job and it took several games for the coaches to understand what the team's strengths and weaknesses were going to be.
Sam Houston State came into the CSU-Pueblo game expecting an easy win, which caused it to come out flat against a very talented Division II team. And while there's no excuse for losing the way they did, I honestly believe CSU-Pueblo was better than at least half the teams in the Southland Conference.
After that game, the Bearkats had a bye week, a road matchup against Lamar followed by another bye week. They took that time to simplify on the defensive side of the ball and to work with quarterback Jared Johnson on his throwing mechanics. Since losing to CSU-Pueblo, they've gone 9-1 and look like a completely new team. There is more cohesion on offense and the defense has been dominant at times during the last several weeks, including a second half shutout during in Sam Houston State's 37-26 road victory over third-seeded Jacksonville State last week.
(2) How has KC Keeler changed this team since arriving on campus? SHSU seems like a program that wasn't struggling at all before he arrived, were there any changes at all?
Sam Houston State has earned itself a reputation as an FCS power over the last three seasons, with national championship appearances in 2011 and 2012, as well as another playoff appearance last year.
But there are very few players on this year's team that had any role at all in the program's success over the last several seasons. Keeler brought in a whopping 17 transfers during the offseason, including 11 from FBS programs. There are only two seniors with starting positions. Keeler brought in offensive coordinator Phil Longo from Slippery Rock, and the offense was transformed into an up-tempo style that is very well balanced between the run and pass.
Keeler changed everything from when the team practices, where the offense and defense stand on the sideline during games and injected the program with a plethora of talent after it was hit hard by graduation. He's winning with mostly players he brought in, not holdovers from the previous coaching staff.
(3) SHSU has a monster rushing attack, with three tailbacks complemented by a pretty talented runner at quarterback as well. How do you expect that offense to perform this weekend/ Have they been challenged in the ground game by anyone this season?
At it's best, the Bearkats' offense isn't something other defenses can hope to stop. It can be contained, but when Johnson is throwing the ball effectively, Sam Houston State is going to score points eventually. Keshawn Hill is a do-it-all running back and he runs behind a very physical offensive line. The Bearkats are the only team left standing that has four players with 600 rushing yards or more on the season. At wide receiver, LaDarius Brown (transfer from TCU) and Derreck Edwards (transfer from Texas Tech) were both four-star recruits coming out of high school. In the slot, redshirt freshman Yedi Louis earned himself a spot on the Jerry Rice Award watch list this season.
The reason the Bearkats' rushing attack has been so successful is not only because of the talent of its primary running threats, but because of the big play ability of the wide receivers as well. The only weak spot on the offense, at times, has been Johnson. In games the Bearkats have lost, Johnson has been wildly inaccurate with the football and has a propensity to throw interceptions deep inside his own territory. Last week was probably the best game Johnson had through the air all season, as he threw the ball accurately down field and did not turn it over. Like it has all season, the success of Sam Houston State's offense rests on Johnson's arm on Saturday.
LSU aside, there hasn't been a team all season that has been successful containing Sam Houston's rushing attack without stacking the box with eight or nine defenders. The first question will be whether Villanova's secondary can play well enough without a lot of help against FBS-caliber wideouts. But that may not matter if Johnson reverts back to how he played against Southeastern Louisiana, when he completed only 12 of his 32 passes. Johnson's passing numbers have varied from week-to-week, and a huge aspect of this game will be which version of him comes to play on Saturday.
(4) Liberty was able to get a lot of pressure on Villanova's offensive tackles early in the game on Saturday and that helped contain John Robertson for much of the first half. Will SHSU be able to bring the same kind of pressure? What other weapons does the Bearkat defense have?
I'm not exaggerating when I say that redshirt freshman P.J. Hall could be the best defensive end in the country. He's the only defensive end I've seen this season on the FCS level who is capable of taking over a game. Over the last three games, he has 16 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and three blocked field goals. That's not taking into account his ability to get into the backfield and force quarterbacks off their spot even when he doesn't make the play. If Villanova doesn't have the personnel to contain Hall, Robertson is going to have to get the ball out of his hands quickly and get creative with his feet, which he's clearly shown the ability to do this season.
There's are no glaring physical weaknesses in Sam Houston State's defense, but they make a handful of mental mistakes in most games that cost them dearly. Missed assignments, poor tackling and letting the quarterback run free outside the pocket have been issues at times. If and when those mistakes come, Villanova has to capitalize.
(5) It's obviously a nostalgia trip for Keeler and some of his staff this weekend, but will that resonate with the players? How do you think the energy level will be coming out the gate?
It's a nostalgia trip for Keeler and several members of his staff as well. In addition to Keeler, there are four members of his staff that spent time coaching at Delaware. I'm also a Delaware grad who covered some Villanova football for The Philadelphia Inquirer last season, so this will be a surreal experience for me as well.
But for the players, I don't think they care about any of that. They all know Keeler's history, but none of them were there to see it and it's not like they need any extra motivation to win a playoff game.
Sam Houston came out slow in the first half last week, but I'm not sure how much of it was a product of a lack of energy or just having never seen an offense like Jacksonville State before. Sam Houston State is starting to sense that it's on the verge of doing something special this year, so I expect the energy to be high. I just can't definitively say that their energy will translate into a fast start.