The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Sports

September 24, 2013

BEARKAT FOOTBALL — Fourth-ranked Kats begin work for ‘heavyweight’ clash against No. 2 Eastern Washington

Huntsville will be the center of the FCS world as fourth-ranked Sam Houston State will face No. 2 Eastern Washington on Saturday afternoon at Bowers Stadium.

HUNTSVILLE — A little more than a week ago, Aggieland played host to swarms of media and eager fans to see the battle between Texas A&M and top-ranked Alabama in the highly anticipated rematch between the two squads.

This week, all eyes will be on Huntsville as Sam Houston State will play host to its own “Game of the Century” on Saturday afternoon.

The Bearkats, who are currently ranked fourth and has been one of the top programs in the FCS over the last two years, will do battle with second-ranked Eastern Washington.

If there was a College Gameday television program strictly devoted to the FCS, it would most likely be setting up shop in Huntsville this week.

“It’s probably the biggest (regular-season) game that’s been on this campus, maybe since forever,” Bearkats coach Willie Fritz said Monday morning. “It’s certainly with the two-highest ranked teams. Montana came in here as No. 1 in 2004, but Sam was not ranked at that time.

“Number two versus number four. They’re a quality football team. I have a lot of respect for them. I like their coach, Beau Baldwin, and I like the way they go about their business — offense, defense, kicking game. We both run our programs the right way. This will be a very good college football game between two very good teams.

“That’s one thing about games like this. You don’t have to do a whole lot of motivating. If you can’t get up for a game like this, you probably don’t have a pulse. I think our guys are raring and ready to go. I think we’re going to have a fantastic crowd. I look forward to it.”

 Saturday’s matchup, which is listed as the 2013 FCS nonconference Game of the Year by The Sports Network, is a biggie for several reasons. It’s a big-time matchup because both squads are ranked among the top five squads and are arguably two of the top three programs in the FCS today.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Saturday’s contest is a can’t miss is because of the last meeting between the Bearkats and the Eagles.

It was a mere four games ago for Eastern Washington and six for Sam Houston  State when the two FCS powerhouses clashed in the national semifinals in Cheney, Wash., last December. The Bearkats rode into The Evergreen State having defeated Cal Poly and Montana State, two of The Big Sky Conference’s tri-champions with only Eastern Washington left to complete the clean sweep.

The Kats started out as well as imagined. Quarterback Brian Bell ran the ball in from 6 yards out on Sam Houston State’s opening possession, then senior safety Robert Shaw picked off a pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown to give the Bearkats a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

The Kats scored three more TDs in the second to take a commanding 35-0 lead at halftime, which led many Eastern Washington fans to call it a day and head out the gates.

The Eagles, led by freshman quarterback Vernon Adams who was inserted into the game midway through the second quarter, rallied in a huge way. Eastern Washington scored on its first two possessions of the third quarter, then recovered an onside kick and found the end zone again to pull to within 14 points.

Eastern Washington scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth, but Sam Houston did just enough, scoring 10 points in the final period, to come away with the 45-42 victory and earn a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game in Frisco.

“There is a pride factor — no question,” Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. “There is a different feel to this game for us because of the tough loss we had to them in the semifinals. To Sam Houston State’s credit, they did a great job against us, they had a great team and they do again this year. We love getting another shot at them – it’s not a revenge factor but it is human nature for players to want to keep fighting back. And our players are no different.”

“I think it adds quite a bit,” Fritz said. “I think across the country and I’m sure they feel this way that when you talk about FCS powers, they should talk about Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State. This is a heavyweight game. It’s going to be an exciting Saturday.”

Earlier this season, Eastern Washington made headlines after upsetting a ranked Oregon State squad in enemy territory. Trailing 46-43 with less than five minutes to play, Adams led a 75-yard drive and punched in the game-winning score with just 18 seconds to play.

“I think early in the season, that happens quite often,” Fritz said. “I saw how great a club they were last season, particularly in the second half. They’ve won a lot of games there and they won a national championship there. They have a very strong pedigree.”

If Saturday’s game is anything like the last meeting, the scoreboard operator will have their hands full keeping up with Eastern Washington’s and Sam Houston State’s explosive offenses.

The Eagles boast the third-best offense in the FCS at 533 yards per game and rank 21st with 37.7 points per game. The Kats have the 21st-ranked offense at 467 yards per game and are the top-scoring offense in the FCS at 52.3 points per game.

Sam Houston State also has the sixth-best rushing attack, averaging 302.3 yards per game, while Eastern Washington is fourth in passing yards with an average of 364.7 per contest.

“Both of us do it a little differently,” Fritz said. “They’re going to throw it more than they run it and we’re going to run it more than we throw it. It shows you there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I think it’ll be a very exciting game. The team that’s going to win is the team that plays better defense.”

There’s still a long way to go before it’s time for kickoff between these two FCS national powers, but what’s for sure is that this is a big opportunity for both Eastern Washington and Sam Houston to make a statement and position themselves well for the rest of the season.

“Nonconference games of this magnitude in FCS are few and far between,” said Baldwin. “Down the road, if you are in a possible situation for an at-large berth, having a win like this on your resume gives you a better chance. There is a long way to go before we would ever think about that, but I really like playing a tough non-conference schedule. If you can do it against a top opponent at your own level in a home-and-home situation, it’s even bigger. It will be a challenge, but it’s great for FCS.”

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