S. Utah-Sam Houston St. Preview
(STATS) - Selection Sunday was deja vu with the NCAA sending Southern Utah to Sam Houston State again for the opening round.
But only a handful of starters remain from its first trip to the playoffs, mainly on defense. The backup quarterback for that game is now one of the top wide receivers, and the 17th-ranked Thunderbirds also have a new offensive coordinator.
The No. 6 Bearkats, meanwhile, bring a different head coach into Saturday's rematch and their attempt at another deep postseason run.
Southern Utah's only postseason appearance ended with a 51-20 drubbing to Sam Houston in 2013, and the Thunderbirds endured a 3-9 campaign last year before bouncing back in a big way.
They claimed their first Big Sky championship this season, finishing 7-1, and are 8-3 overall following an 0-2 start.
"I was kind of excited when I saw that we were playing them again, kind of have a Round 2 and get another shot at them," leading receiver Mike Sharp said. "I know I'm a much better player than I was back in 2013. I know a lot of the other guys are too, so we're excited to go back and have another chance at Sam Houston."
Sam Houston State is also 8-3 after dropping its first two games, and both teams opened with close losses to FBS opponents. Southern Utah fell 12-9 to Utah State on Sept. 3, and Sam Houston lost 59-45 to Texas Tech two days later.
Each team faced a high-pressure game last weekend - the Thunderbirds edged Northern Arizona 49-41 to secure an outright conference title and Sam Houston handled Central Arkansas 42-13 in what was essentially a playoff game for the Southland Conference's second postseason berth.
"I think we're at a good place right now. I like how we're playing," Bearkats coach K.C. Keeler said. "I also like how we've come together and I know we have a tough game coming up against a very good Southern Utah team. I think we're excited about that."
Keeler was between head coaching jobs in 2013 with his 11-season tenure at Delaware - highlighted by a national title in 2003 - having ended a year earlier. Willie Fritz, now at Georgia Southern, was Sam Houston's coach for the previous meeting with Southern Utah.
Bearkats fans might notice the Thunderbirds have made their greatest strides from 2013 on offense, and they could witness a thrilling game against their high-powered program, which has advanced to at least the semifinals three of the past four years.
Under coordinator Justin Walterscheid, Southern Utah ranks in the FCS' top 25 with 35.1 points and 436.8 yards per game but it likely will have to outduel a team that's in the top five in each category.
Sam Houston is averaging 43.8 points and 544.5 yards while rotating in as many as 10 linemen and a bevy of skill players. Quarterback Jared Johnson, the Southland's offensive player of the year, has 18 touchdowns to just one interception.
The Thunderbirds' quarterback for the 2013 matchup, Aaron Cantu, finished that season with 10 TDs and 12 interceptions. Their current one, Ammon Olsen, has 22 touchdowns and six picks.
The senior's knack for taking care of the ball has the Thunderbirds leading the nation in turnover margin at plus-21. It's a stark contrast to a team that topped 30 points and 400 yards on just one occasion in 2013.
Sam Houston has been held under 34 points just once this season, a 27-10 loss to Southland champ McNeese State on Nov. 7.
The Bearkats, like the Thunderbirds, have experienced some ups and downs on the other side of the ball. Sam Houston has given up at least 400 yards in six games and 20-plus points in seven.
Southern Utah has allowed an average of 31.3 points and nearly 500 yards while winning three of its past four games.
The Thunderbirds outscored their previous five opponents 207-16 as part of a seven-game win streak that ended with a 24-23 loss to No. 5 Portland State on Nov. 14.
James Cowser, the Big Sky's defensive player of the year, has an FCS-record 40 1/2 career sacks - 11 this season - and 78 tackles for loss. The end could find himself matched up with All-American tackle Donald Jackson III, the Southland's offensive lineman of the year.
Cowser is slated to appear in the East-West Shrine Game in January with defensive back LeShaun Sims. Safety Miles Killebrew is the program's first player invited to the Senior Bowl, and linebacker Mike Needham was also named to the Big Sky's all-conference first team.