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Villanova vs. SHSU, FCS playoffs quarterfinals preview: K.C. Keeler returns to the Main Line with new team

Sam Houston State University's upset win over three-seed Jacksonville State last weekend set up a return for Coach KC Keeler to Villanova Stadium -- his first time on Goodreau Field since 2009.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When Sam Houston State arrived in Philadelphia today, the Huntsville, Texas football program wasn't entirely unfamiliar with Villanova. Former Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler has been running things down there since January, and the man known for wearing his sunglasses at night knows exactly what the Wildcats do best. While the coaches are meeting for the 12th time, it will be the first time that the Wildcats and Bearkats have shared a football field.

Andy Talley has a 7-4 record against Keeler in their 11 meetings during the SHSU coach's tenure at Delaware. The last seven meetings went Villanova's way six times, despite Delaware often having elite talent -- including NFL first-round pick Joe Flacco.

When the SHSU coach arrived in Texas, he made changes, altering the offensive scheme, changing equipment and practicing in the mornings. The last change was certainly one that he picked up from Andy Talley -- the Villanova coach invited him to watch practice on the Main Line and chat after he lost his job at Delaware, and the morning practice time was one of the things he liked about that experience.

After starting the season with a loss to Big Sky power EWU, the Bearkats embarked on a rough journey that saw them lose two more in the first four weeks of the season; a paycheck game at #12 LSU and a 47-21 home loss to Division II Colorado State-Pueblo. SHSU was still figuring things out at that point, but the Southland Conference power, managed to finish strong with a 7-1 record in the league to finish atop the standings. The 10-4 team hasn't lost a game since an October 18th trip to Northwestern State.

Keeler came in somewhat late for the recruiting season, but he added 17 transfer students (a familiar trick), including 11 from FBS programs to help stack his roster with talent and make up for the loss of the school's winningest quarterback and a stud running back in the offseason.

The Bearkats have a physical offensive line that likes to block int he running game. That has allowed them to get four players across the 600-yard rushing mark on the season -- running backs Keshawn Hill (1049 yds), Jal Overstreet (693), Donav Williams (635), and quarterback Jared Johnson (901). That is a lot for any team to handle, with a constant supply of fresh legs from the SHSU sideline, causing most teams to look to stack the box with eight men.

That's when Johnson has teams where he really wants them. The Kats (with a "k") quarterback is the seventh-ranked passer in the Southland with a 55.2% completion rate and 180.3 yards per game passing and 18 scores. In his best games, however, defenses concentrating on the run game have given him the chance to find one of three talented receivers in TCU transfer LaDarius Brown, Texas Tech transfer Derreck Edwards and Jerry Rice Award candidate Yedi Louis. That crew can be a lot to handle straight-up, but teams that have cheated against the run can find them absolutely impossible to deal with.

If the 'Cats can stop the run without piling everyone into the box, then things could just come down to how efficient Johnson can be throwing the ball -- a figure that has varied widely from week-to-week.

SHSU's offense and defense (scoring) each rank 4th in the Southland, averaging 36.1 points for and 27.4 against this season.

They were a pretty good run-stopping defense, but were in the bottom half of their league against passing offenses -- which puts the pressure on John Robertson to look for Poppy Livers and Kevin Gulyas (along with his other targets) via the air. Robertson has been an efficient and effective passer this season, but the team was plagued by drops last week in what coach Andy Talley called "monsoon-like" conditions -- heavy rain.

SHSU is a very good team that has gelled and found momentum at the right time. A victory will be hard fought and will depend a lot on the Villanova offense's ability to move the ball early in the game and control the tempo of the action. The defense will have to look to stop the run while keeping their defensive backs in coverage as well.