BOZEMAN, Mont. —
With a hard-fought victory over Cal Poly last week in their second-round FCS playoff game, the Bearkats moved a little closer to returning to Frisco for the national championship game.
Sam Houston can take another big step toward that goal tonight, but the Kats have a tall task in front of them as they are set to face second-ranked and No. 3 overall seed Montana State in snowy Bozeman, Mont., in the FCS quarterfinals.
The Bearkats (9-3 overall) and the Bobcats met last season in the quarterfinals, but that game was played at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville. Sam Houston took full advantage of a momentum-swinging 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and punched out Montana State with 29 unanswered points on its way to a winning in a 49-13 rout.
The Kats know the Bobcats (11-1) will have their minds set on returning the favor in tonight’s nationally televised game in Montana State’s own backyard.
Though Sam Houston won running away last time, thanks to some big plays by utility man Richard Sincere, who had 160 rushing yards, and a hard-hitting, stifling defense, the Kats are expecting a much tougher fight this time.
“I think as far as last year, you can’t compare it to how it’s going to be this year,” Sam Houston defensive tackle Gary Lorance said. “We’re going to be at their house. I think all around, they’re a better football team (than they were last year). They seem to have gotten better on the offensive line and they’ve got a new OC (offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven).
“It’s going to be a different ballgame than it was here at Bowers last year.”
Throughout the regular season, the Bobcats have been one of the top FCS teams in the country. They seem to always find ways to win. Montana State’s only setback this season was a 27-24 loss to Eastern Washington on Oct. 13. The Bobcats bounced back and ran the table the rest of the way to clinch a share of the Big Sky Conference championship, along with Eastern Washington and Cal Poly.
Leading the charge for the Bobcats has been quarterback and Walter Payton Award finalist DeNarius McGhee, as well as a much-improved run defense. In last week’s 16-10 second-round playoff victory over Stony Brook, McGhee accounted for nearly 82 percent of Montana State’s offense with 75 rushing yards and 208 yards through the air.
The defense also stopped the Seawolves’ running game, holding Payton Award finalist Miguel Maysonet to 83 yards on 19 carries and no scores.
“Their quarterback is running the ball more than they did last season,” Bearkats coach Willie Fritz said of McGhee, who played high school football at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas.
“Defensively, I think they’re very sound at what they do and tackle well and playing space well. I’m sure they’re going to have a good plan for the option. The thing I see is that they’re a year older and most of their guys are back and more experienced. They’re definitely a better football team than when we faced them last year.”
The Bearkats hope to keep the mobile McGhee from breaking out of the pocket and scrambling. In last season’s quarterfinal matchup, Sam Houston was able to hold McGhee to no rushing yards on seven carries.
McGhee has been hard to stop in recent weeks. In the regular-season finale against archrival Montana and last week against Stony Brook, McGhee broke out for 46 and 75 rushing yards, respectively.
From dealing with the task of trying to handle other mobile quarterbacks through the 2012 campaign, the Bearkats believe they are up to the task and feel they can quell McGhee’s running threat again.
“We’ve been playing dual-threat quarterbacks all season — (Central Arkansas quarterback Wynrick) Smothers and (Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy finalist Johnny) Manziel,” Lorance said. “I’m not trying to take anything away from the guy from Montana State. He’s a very good scrambler, but I don’t think he’s the best scrambler we’ve faced so far.”
Offensively, the Bearkats ran into some speed bumps last week against a solid Cal Poly defense, a unit Kats standout running back and Payton Award finalist Timothy Flanders said was one of the best FCS defenses Sam Houston has faced this season.
The Bearkats struggled to make the most of turnovers by the defense and special teams, but did just enough to prevail past the Mustangs 18-16 to remain as one of the eight FCS teams still alive in the playoffs.
The Sam Houston offense knows it has to produce at a higher level and finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals to come out on top in today’s quarterfinal showdown.
“It’s just about being focused on whatever it is we need to do. Everybody just needs to do their one-eleventh and our offense will just take care of itself and we’ll produce like we normally do,” Sincere said. “As long as we’re mentally tough, we should be all right.
“Our coaches, they draw up great schemes to put certain people in certain positions for our team to be successful. We just need to use our strengths and we’ll be productive that way.”
Another area of concern for the Sam Houston defense is the Bobcats’ running game. Tailbacks Cody Kirk (843 yards and 13 touchdowns), Orenzo Davis (583 yards and seven TDs) and Tray Robinson (195 yards and four scores) are all back in the Montana State backfield and will be looking to bend the Bearkats’ tough defensive line.
The Kats’ rushing defense has been one of the best in the FCS this year statistically (ranked third, allowing just 88.67 rushing yards per game), and will look to make those numbers even more impressive.
“It’s like I’ve said about the quarterback, we’ve faced a lot of great running teams,” Lorance said. “It’s not the first time that we’ll be challenged up front as far as stopping the run. The main thing is just containing the quarterback and limiting the big plays off the run.”
Both Sam Houston and Montana State had to survive tough second-round challenges just to make it back to the quarterfinals. Though both teams were playing at home, victories weren’t certain until the final minutes.
“Last week, we gave ourselves the opportunity to play this week, so this week we’ll just do what our coaches tell us to do, play hard, be focused and find some kind of way to win this ballgame,” Sincere said.
“It’s a long season. If you’re playing right now, you’ve played a lot of games and a lot of consecutive games,” Fritz said. “Part of being in the playoffs, it’s a mental and physical grind. Some guys are able to withstand it and prosper in that kind of atmosphere and some guys have a tough time with it. Teams in the playoffs are normally a little bit mentally tougher than other teams.”
Both the Bearkats and Bobcats know it’s more than likely going to take another gritty performance to advance to next week’s semifinals against either Illinois State or No. 2 seed Eastern Washington.
“It’s going to take being physical for four quarters and being dominant up front. As far as winning the game, we’re going to have to turn it into a one-dimensional passing game, which is what we try to do every game,” Lorance added. “This team, they really like to try to run it at you and let their quarterback scramble and get out of the pocket a little bit on passes. It’ll be up to the front seven or eight for this game to be won.”
2012 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs
Today: Sam Houston at Montana State in FCS quarterfinal playoff game, Bobcat Stadium, Bozeman, Mont., 7 p.m. Central time
Records: Bearkats are 9-3; Bobcats are 11-1
Radio/TV: The game can be heard on KSAM (101.7 FM) and seen live on ESPN2