Defense powers Kats to NCAA Victory
Some might even think of "old-school football" at the mention of Saturday's game.
Sam Houston State hadn't played this closely with anyone all season, neither had it seen a team so similar in eight previous games of FCS competition.
Defensive back Kenneth Jenkins, who finished with a game-high 10 solo tackles and 12 total, said Cal Poly running backs Kristaan Ivory and Deonte Williams were two of the best he'd ever played against, which could explain how the Mustangs became the No. 3 rushing offense in the FCS coming into Saturday's contest.
"We had a little plan for them, but they were still making their plays," Jenkins said. "It was hard to tackle them, probably two of the best running backs I've ever played against. It was a good experience, like good versus good and how good are you? That was a good, competitive game."
By the end of the first quarter, Cal Poly had outgained Sam Houston by 49 yards of total offense. Yet it was still obvious that these teams had a lot of similarities. The Bearkats and Mustangs completed just one pass apiece to go for a combined 2-of-6 in the opening period. Both teams were fairly dedicated to the run in the triple option set, only in different formations.
The Bearkats ran their triple option out of the shotgun, while the Mustangs usually set up under center. Both coaches admitted that familiarity with the other team's philosophy was helpful to their respective game plans. That meant a defensive struggle was in store, which was exactly what the 7,073 fans in attendance witnessed.
Even more so with Cal Poly, there was little left to the imagination. The Mustangs kept it on the ground nearly every time they took a snap. Every now and then, Sam Houston would get hoodwinked by the old-man style of football.
Cal Poly completed seven of its 13 pass attempts for an average of 23 yards.
"They did a really good job getting over the top of us, too," Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. "We got our eyes in the backfield a couple of times."
The Bearkats had their eyes in the backfield for good reason. Cal Poly rushed it 56 times in 69 offensive plays, and the Mustangs' most frequent runner was quarterback Andre Broadus, who rushed 17 times for 54 yards. With the opposing quarterback doing more running than throwing, it seemed easy to think that the defensive backs would get bored not having any deep balls to worry about. Cal Poly did not throw the ball more than five times in any quarter.
In distinct contrast to the Bearkats' playoff opener last year against Stony Brook, it was difficult for the Kats to anticipate the pass, especially since those plays were executed in the same formations as the run-dominant option.
But to read the stat sheet and hear Jenkins tell it, the Sam Houston defense planned for the back end of the unit to have a big night.
"This week was fun for us (defensive backs) because we knew our D-line and linebackers would pick up all the linemen and blockers and make the high safeties free," Jenkins said. "So we knew it was going to be on us, because they were going to free up everybody and it'd be one-on-one with us and the ball carrier.
"At the end, they started throwing the ball over the top. I didn't get over the top like I was supposed to. That's because they're a running team and I was cheating down for the run and they'd just pop it over. It was fun, though."
The Bearkats never trailed, but easily could have. The next brush with adversity will be Sam Houston traveling to Montana State this week to play in cold weather for the first time this season. Sam Houston had its focus on Cal Poly this week, but privately the players discussed the possibility of playing in cold weather.
"We talked about maybe having to go to Montana. It's going to be cold and a different atmosphere," Jenkins said. "But we told each other that as long as we play and do what we've been doing, we'd be straight. And then, what if Stony Brook had to come down here? It would be a hard game just like last year so we prepare for a hard, tough game either way.
"That's just the mind-set."
Fritz will tell anyone who asks about what won or lost the game for his team that as a head coach, he's undefeated when plus-3 in the turnover-takeaway ratio. There were a pair of forced fumbles that were also recovered by Jenkins and Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year Darnell Taylor. Also, safety Robert Shaw left his assignment during one play to intercept a rare pass by Broadus.
"I saw the receiver come through the middle wide open and I thought, 'something ain't right'," Shaw said. "So I just ran with him and it happened to be the person who was getting the ball. I had to adjust myself to be able to make the interception."
But perhaps no moment was more critical than in the second quarter when senior special teamer Vincent Dotson blocked a punt by Cal Poly's Bobby Zalud that resulted in a safety, which was the difference in the final score. The game was scoreless before that play, and both teams connected on three field goals and a touchdown apiece from there.
"We came through when we needed to," Fritz said. "We had a stretch in here where we started off 1-2 and we had signs around here that said 'playoff intensity' which is what we had to do every single week in order to advance. The guys did that and I told them this is the second season and we've got to rev it back up again. We've got to have playoff intensity in every meeting, every practice, every treatment, every weight session, every ballgame."