(STATS) – Sam Houston State and Kennesaw State are pretty close to polar opposites.
The Bearkats have a long-standing winning tradition. The Owls don’t have one to speak of.
The former has the most prolific passing offense in the subdivision. The latter boasts the most dangerous ground attack.
SHSU tries to outscore ya. Kennesaw wants to shut you down.
The Bearkats come from one of the biggest and oldest conferences in the FCS. Kennesaw comes from one of the smallest and newest.
What the teams do have in common is that neither one has endured a loss in quite some time.
That’s going to change Saturday night when the upstart Owls visit the fifth-seeded Bearkats to close out the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs.
It’s the same round in which Sam Houston State was humiliated last year, falling 65-7 to James Madison, after reaching the semifinals in the previous two seasons. That quarterfinal loss, however, came in frigid Virginia whereas this contest will be in warmer Huntsville, Texas, and with reigning STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe at full strength unlike last year when coach K.C. Keeler nearly sat down his star quarterback.
“I think last year was probably the biggest growing that we needed to do in the playoffs,” Briscoe said. “I think that we really didn’t focus like we needed to. We kind of let the elements get to us, got caught up in the distractions and things. And this year, the senior core group that we have has really done an awesome job just leadership-wise of making sure that doesn’t happen again, and that includes myself.”
The Owls went into the playoffs without any experience from which to learn, not because they weren’t good enough, but because they weren’t around. This is the program’s third year of existence, with coach Brian Bohannon leading a stunningly fast rise to prominence.
“I never said there was a schedule when we started this thing, but wanted to get better every day. I didn’t know where we would be in year three,” Bohannon said. “To these kids’ credit, they just continue to play and no situation or moments have got the best of them.”
There’s no reason to think his team can’t keep the ride going after pulling off a shocker on the road last week, 17-7 over third-seeded Jacksonville State.
While that was the 12th consecutive victory for the champions of the six-team Big South, the Bearkats outlasted South Dakota 54-42 for their eighth straight win.
SHSU, though, has yet to face a triple-option opponent, and that’s the big challenge facing Keeler’s club. That approach, which Bohannon adopted from his days on Paul Johnson’s staff at Georgia Tech, has the Owls ranked No. 1 in the FCS with 328.5 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Chandler Burks leads the way with 1,060 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.
“They’ll just chip away at you,” Keeler said. “And with their speed, they’ll hit some big ones on you.”
So will Briscoe. He’s a Payton Award nominee again and coming off a signature performance with 505 passing yards and four TDs. Only Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph has thrown for more yards this year than Briscoe’s 4,398, and only Missouri’s Drew Lock has more TD passes than Briscoe’s 41.
Helped by a very talented receiving corps, Briscoe spearheads a passing game which has tormented the other 10 teams in the Southland Conference and is averaging an FCS-best 372.8 yards per game.
“It’s important that when they’re throwing the ball we keep everything in front,” said Kennesaw linebacker Bryson Armstrong, the Big South co-freshman of the year. “No missed tackles, get the ball back on offense. We definitely need to force a few turnovers.”
The Owls lead the FCS with 34 turnovers forced, and that’s where lumber enters the story.
Like the gold chain the Miami Hurricanes defense passes around for forcing turnovers, the Owls have Turnover Plank – a piece of wood with a smiley face on it.
“He’ll make the plane ride,” Armstrong said. “He’ll have a seat, that’s for sure.”
The desire to get to hold up Plank has fueled a defense which surrenders 14.1 points per game, fourth-best in the subdivision.
“They’re physical up front, they keep everything in front of them,” Keeler said. “Really impressed with their defense. And offensively, it marries up very well.”
That Kennesaw offense must succeed on the ground to keep Briscoe and company off the field, and stopping the run isn’t SHSU’s strong suit. Against six opponents who ran the ball at least 39 times, the Bearkats allowed 237.7 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per carry. They’ve surrendered more than 30 points on seven occasions, including each of the past three games.
Yet, Briscoe feels that in this unique matchup, how his offense fares is nearly as important as how the defense performs in order to slow down the Owls.
“When you play a triple-option team, it’s not just your defense playing a triple-option team,” he explained. “It’s a full team effort because they’re gonna eat up the clock and they’re gonna limit the possessions we get offensively, so we need to make our possessions count. We need to put numbers on the scoreboard by sevens and not by threes.”