Sam Houston still Southland benchmark
(STATS) - Sam Houston State finished the season in a familiar spot and boasted a record-setting offense that hummed like a sports car at times.
The Bearkats also nearly wrecked themselves out of playoff contention on a couple occasions, but came through when it mattered while making another deep postseason run.
Given the Bearkats' talent, getting to the final four wasn't all too surprising. Sam Houston, however, might have missed the playoffs if it didn't win at Central Arkansas in its regular season finale Nov. 21.
It responded to that challenge with a 42-13 rout.
The Bearkats had an early spinout with a 49-46 loss to visiting Lamar on Sept. 19 after a bye week and a competitive 59-45 defeat at Texas Tech on Sept. 5. Coach K.C. Keeler stated throughout the rest of the season that he erred in trying to take it easy on his team with at least 10 consecutive weeks of games forthcoming.
Keeler also said his team "let Texas Tech beat us twice," meaning his players bought into the praise from its close loss.
Sam Houston got back on track by winning 11 of 12 before the semifinals with the lone defeat coming at Southland Conference champ McNeese State on Nov. 7.
The Bearkats, though, had to rally from an early deficit in the Battle of the Piney Woods game against Stephen F. Austin on Oct. 3 to hold off their rivals for a 34-28 win.
They also avoided another damaging loss by denying Texas A&M-Commerce's comeback bid in a 38-24 victory Oct. 31.
That proved fine preparation for the playoffs, where Sam Houston had to survive a challenging opener against Big Sky champ Southern Utah, then a rematch with McNeese.
The Bearkats rallied from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter to win the first of those games. Yedidiah Louis' 55-yard touchdown on a screen pass with 3:44 remaining put them ahead for good, but the 42-39 victory wasn't sealed until Adrian Contreras forced a fumble that Tristan Eche recovered at midfield.
They won 34-29 at McNeese the next week (see below) and easily handled Colgate 48-21 in the quarterfinals.
Sam Houston finished with an FCS-best and a school-record 7,975 yards. The Bearkats (11-4) also set marks with 616 points and 414 first downs.
"What a great year. We started 0-2 and ended up in the final four in the country," Keeler said. "The team really came together in terms of chemistry, camaraderie and unselfishness."
Conference champion: McNeese State claimed its first crown since 2009 behind one of the nation's stingiest defenses. The Cowboys yielded 13.2 points and 300.2 yards per game, including 87.4 on the ground, while becoming the ninth team in Southland history to end the regular season unbeaten (10-0). They were also the first to finish 9-0 in the league, but lost in a sixth consecutive playoff opener.
Game of the Year: McNeese might have beaten Sam Houston a second time if Bearkats cornerback Trenier Orr didn't catch Cowboys receiver Kent Shelby at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. McNeese then committed a false start, gave up a sack, got flagged for holding and gave up another sack to turn first-and-goal at the 1 into fourth-and-goal at the 34. Sam Houston ran out the clock on an ensuing 11-play drive.
Offensive Player of the Year: Lamar running back Kade Harrington had solid performances in his first two collegiate seasons - 880 and 740 yards, respectively - but nothing that would indicate what was coming in 2015. Harrington shattered the Southland mark with 2,092 yards, scored 23 touchdowns and set a slew of school records while finishing second in the STATS Offensive Player of the Year voting. He surpassed 2,000 yards in 10 games, becoming the seventh in Division I history to accomplish that feat.
Defensive Player of the Year: Incarnate Word linebacker Myke Tavarres paced the Southland with 8.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. The senior also set a school mark with 110 total stops in his only season with the program en route to being named the conference's newcomer of the year and a STATS first team All-American.
Surprise of the Year: Incarnate Word's 6-5 finish and 5-4 showing in its second Southland season - after being picked to finish ninth in the 11-team league - certainly qualifies. The Cardinals hinted that they might make a big stride with their competitive performance in their first matchup with an FBS program, a 27-17 loss at UTEP on Sept. 26. The next step for the program is getting more consistent performances. Incarnate Word alternated wins and losses in its 11 games.
Disappointment of the Year: Southeastern Louisiana was considered a contender for a third consecutive conference title, but it never recovered after losing 21-7 at McNeese on Oct. 10. The Lions dropped six of their final seven games with a spate of injuries playing a significant role. They finished 4-7 after going a combined 20-7 in their previous two seasons.
Southland by the Numbers:
0 - Wins for Stephen F. Austin in its first five games, marking the worst start for Clint Conque in his 16 seasons as a head coach. The Lumberjacks went 4-2 to finish the campaign.
1 - Interceptions for Sam Houston quarterback Jared Johnson over his final 13 games. He had 18 touchdowns and 2,072 yards in that stretch.
10 - Blocked kicks for Sam Houston defensive lineman P.J. Hall in his first two seasons, putting him two shy of a school mark. He already has a program-record 52 tackles for loss and is second with 23 sacks.
30.5 - Career sacks for Central Arkansas' Jonathan Woodard, a school record. He also had a program-best 53 tackles for loss while being named an all-conference performer in each of his four seasons.
43.9 - Career punting average for Houston Baptist sophomore Christian Guzman, making the conference's current leader.
45 - Yards that Southeastern Louisiana's 320-pound defensive tackle Ashton Henderson ran to return a fumble for a score in a 28-17 win against Florida Tech on Sept. 12. The highlight earned him SB Nation's inaugural Piesman Trophy - given to the lineman who made the year's most surprising play - in a ceremony in New York in December.
54 - Conference wins for Viator, a Southland record. The former McNeese coach also tied a school mark with 78 victories, and new coach Lance Guidry will attempt to break that deadlock over the forthcoming seasons.
248 - Rushing yards for Sam Houston third- and fourth-string backs Ridgeway Frank and Remus Bulmer in the playoff win over Southern Utah. They stepped in with Corey Avery and Jalen Overstreet injured.
347 - Rushing yards for Harrington against Abilene Christian on Oct. 10, breaking the Southland record of 310 formerly held by Texas State's Claude Mathis. Harrington had six games with at least 200 yards.
671 - Passing yards for Jeremiah Briscoe in playoff wins over McNeese and Colgate. He had a career-high 358 in the quarterfinals with four touchdowns, giving him seven in the two contests.
Next Year: With 17 starters slated to return, Sam Houston would appear the team to beat in the Southland next season. One of the intriguing questions is will the Bearkats settle on a quarterback or continue to use two in that pursuit? They also have a big hole to fill on the line with the graduation of All-American tackle Donald Jackson III. McNeese has to replace defensive standouts Bo Brown, Wallace Scott, Cameron Smith and Brent Spikes among others, but having its coordinator from that side of the ball as its new head coach could help. Harrington will seek to join another elite list with a second consecutive 2,000-yard campaign. He will likely need Lamar to find capable replacements for departing tackles Justin Brock and Cody Elenz.