Sam Houston St.-Jacksonville St. Preview
(STATS) - Coach K.C. Keeler and his Sam Houston State team are already acquainted with their hotel for their trip to Jacksonville State. They know all about Burgess-Snow Field, and they're quite familiar with the top-seeded Gamecocks.
The Bearkats will try to use that to their advantage when they seek another upset in Alabama on Saturday and their third trip to the FCS national championship game in five years.
Sam Houston (11-3) is again heading into Jacksonville State as an unseeded team but likely would have been considered one of the top eight squads in these playoffs if not for its 0-2 start.
The Bearkats recovered from a 1-3 start en route to reaching last year's semifinals, where they lost to four-time defending champion North Dakota State. Along the way, they won 37-26 at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State in the second round.
"There should be some confidence because we did beat a very good team at their place last year, but every year is different," Keeler said.
Sam Houston entered last season's matchup ranked 17th with 36.1 points per game and 22nd in total offense. The Bearkats are heading in this time having racked up the most yards in Division I with 7,716 and averaging 43.3 points.
Jacksonville State (12-1) is not far behind in total offense with 520.8 yards per game and is averaging 39.4 points.
"I think it's two pretty evenly matched teams. We're both athletic, fast and physical teams that play similar styles," Gamecocks coach John Grass said. "There are definitely some comparisons there. You would expect nothing less in a semifinal game."
Grass' team, though, has a better defense statistically. The Gamecocks rank in the top 20 with 19.4 points and 297.5 yards allowed per game, while the Bearkats are giving up 25.6 points and 397.5 yards.
"Every FCS team we played this year, I've said that we'll be more talented than them. We've just got to go out and play. This team is just as talented as we are, if not more," Keeler said. "It's going to be a challenge."
Keeler said he is expecting to see an improved Eli Jenkins. The STATS first- team All-American has 19 touchdowns to six interceptions after posting 12 TDs and nine picks in 2014.
He has also been an especially formidable rusher in his last three games, totaling 520 yards on 56 carries and 195 in each of the two playoff victories.
Pope became the school's single-season rushing leader with 1,576 yards while leading Jacksonville State to its first FCS semifinal appearance and needs 210 to tie the Ohio Valley Conference's all-time mark.
Pope, the Gamecocks' second-leading rusher in 2014, finished well short of that number last year against Sam Houston with 23 yards on eight carries. The teams combined for 501 yards on the ground with Jacksonville State rushing for 260.
The Bearkats had better luck containing the Gamecocks' passing attack, intercepting Jenkins twice and sacking him a career-high four times.
After a back-and-forth first half that left it trailing by two, Sam Houston took command by shutting out the Gamecocks in the final 30 minutes. Jared Johnson threw for his third touchdown, a 49-yard pass to LaDarius Brown, in the third quarter and Jalen Overstreet helped seal the win with a 33-yard scoring run.
Johnson has reportedly been dealing with an ankle injury for much of the playoffs and sat out a 48-21 win against Colgate in last Saturday's quarterfinal. Jeremiah Briscoe threw for a career-best 358 yards and four touchdowns while Corey Avery matched a personal high with 197 rushing yards.
Avery, who played at Kansas last season, has topped the century mark in six of his last seven games. Only an injury in the playoff opener, a 42-39 win against Southern Utah on Nov. 28, likely kept that from being a lengthy streak.
"It's going to be a great football game just like last year's was. I don't expect anything less on Saturday," Grass said. "I know both clubs will be ready to play. They're just a very talented team. They're well-coached."
Briscoe and Johnson might split some snaps if the latter is truly healthy. Keeler used a bit of subterfuge last week, saying he thought both players could see action against Colgate, then revealed in the postgame press conference that Johnson hadn't practiced all week.
Johnson had 18 touchdowns and one interception in the regular season while being named the Southland Conference offensive player of the year. Briscoe has topped 300 yards in back-to-back weeks and had three TDs in a 34-29 win over previously unbeaten league rival McNeese State on Dec. 5.
Jacksonville State was in the Southland with Sam Houston from 1996-2002 and faced the Bearkats for the first time since those league days in last season's game. Sam Houston took a 5-4 lead in the series.
The Gamecocks are seeking to become the first OVC team to reach the national championship game since Eastern Kentucky won its second title in 1982.