Sam Houston St.-McNeese St. Preview

Publish date:

(STATS) - Sam Houston State used its depth to survive its playoff opener but didn't have enough to overcome a pair of absences last month against McNeese State.

The No. 6 Bearkats could also be missing players for Saturday night's rematch against the unbeaten and third-ranked Cowboys and their stout defense.

Sam Houston (9-3) was down to its third- and fourth-string running backs last Saturday against Southern Utah after Corey Avery and Jalen Overstreet left in the first half. The Bearkats were also forced to use backup quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe when Southland Conference offensive player of the year Jared Johnson was ineffective while playing through an ankle injury.

Sixth-year senior Ridgeway Frank ran for a career-high 137 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-39 victory, and freshman Remus Bulmer had 111 yards on 16 carries. Briscoe, who saw significant playing time earlier this season, passed for 211 yards and the go-ahead touchdown to Yedidiah Louis with 3:44 remaining.

The Bearkats' uptempo offense ran a program-record 118 plays while gaining 579 yards - 344 on the ground.

"It's a deep team, probably as deep of a team as I've ever had, and we expect guys to be able to go in and play when they have an opportunity," coach K.C. Keeler said.

Keeler said that his injured players' statuses might remain unknown until Saturday. The Bearkats had two players suspended, Overstreet and receiver LaDarius Brown, in the week leading up to their visit to McNeese on Nov. 7.

The Cowboys (10-0) kept Sam Houston to a season-low 66 plays and 380 yards in a 27-10 victory that clinched a playoff berth and their first Southland Conference title since 2009.

The Cowboys also held the Bearkats to three points on offense. Sam Houston, among the FCS leaders with 43.7 points and 547.4 yards per game, scored its touchdown on Darion Flowers' 90-yard interception return in the opening quarter.

McNeese is second nationally with 11.1 points allowed per contest and its 280.8 yards yielded per game is good for ninth. The Cowboys also boast the FCS' top rushing defense (78.6 yards per game) and rank among the leaders in time of possession (34:05).

They used their running game to control the clock for 37:34 against Sam Houston while compiling what was then a season-high 305 yards. McNeese topped that with 406 in a 20-14 win at Lamar in the season finale Nov. 21.

Quarterback Daniel Sams led the way with 164 yards in the first meeting and sprinted for a 64-yard touchdown with 1:40 to go in the second quarter. On the Cowboys' ensuing drive, Sams connected with Kent Shelby on a 6-yard TD just four seconds before the half to put his team ahead for good.

"Obviously we understand the challenge that's ahead of us," McNeese coach Matt Viator said. "(Sam Houston is) an extremely talented football team and it was an extremely competitive game the last time we played. A couple of plays here and there was the difference in the game."

The Cowboys have played once since the last meeting. While that rest should serve his team well, Viator is on guard against the proverbial rust that could set in with such relative inactivity.

"It's good to be rested, but it's not good if you're not executing and you're not sharp and you are not doing the things you need to do," he said.

In their league-best 16th playoff appearance, the fourth-seeded Cowboys are seeking their first postseason win since a run to the 2002 national championship game that ended with a defeat to Western Kentucky. They have lost by a combined 190-47 in their last five playoff games - four at home - and fell 31-10 to Jacksonville State in 2013 as a No. 6 seed.

Sam Houston has been one of the FCS' most successful programs in the postseason of late. The Bearkats are one of three teams to make it into each of the last five playoffs and have reached at least the semifinals in three of those trips, including last season.

"I think it's just a mentality that you're in a one-game season," Keeler said. "We thrive in that atmosphere. We don't shy away from it."

Sam Houston has won three of the last five meetings with McNeese but has lost 13 of the past 15 road games in the series.

The Cowboys are facing a Southland team in the playoffs for the first time, while it's the third consecutive year for Sam Houston State. The Bearkats split two matchups with Southeastern Louisiana and won 21-17 in last season's opening round.