Coming into the season, the Kats wanted to be the best defense in the Southland Conference from the defensive line all the way to the secondary. In doing so, Sam Houston have put together a squad that is, statistically, one of the best in the country.
"The coaches told us coming that we had the chance to be a very good defense and that it was all up to us. So us as athletes and knowing that the coaches spend a lot of time with us, we both wanted to make that a reality," sophomore defensive end Preston Sanders said before Friday afternoon's walkthrough. "At the start of the two-a-days, we were all in. So far, it's been showing on the field. Coaches don't lie, everything they tell us is going to happen. We drill it, we believe in it and sure enough, in games it comes true."
Consider the numbers.
Through five games - four against FCS teams and one one the road at an FBS school - the Bearkats rank first in the country against the run, allowing 46.0 yards per game at 2.17 per carry. The Kats are also third in the FCS in scoring defense, giving up just 15.6 points per game and fourth in turnover differential, getting nearly two more turnovers (1.8) than their opponents every game. Sam Houston is also 10th in the FCS in passing efficiency defense and 19th in total defense (307.0).
"For a lot of these guys, this is the third year in (defensive coordinator Scott Stoker's) system," Bearkats head coach Willie Fritz said. "We're very complex defensively. You can't be a dummy and play in this defense. Luckily, we've got a lot of smart kids and we've got some talented kids. We've developed depth. ... When you combine a good scheme with good players and good coaching, you're going to be pretty good."
In each of their games, SHSU's defense has been committed to stopping the run and making teams one-dimensional. In fact, the Bearkats have yet to allow a team to rush for more than 100 yards. Of the FCS teams Sam Houston has played, Central Arkansas had the most success running the ball, but managed just 47 yards off 24 attempts.
"Coach Stoker always talks about making a team one-dimensional," Sanders said. "When the offense can't pick up the yards they need on the run, when you throw a pass, there's more of a chance of anything happening from a tip pass or a sack, which is a heavy loss of yardage. There's a number of things that can happen.
"It just makes it a lot easier when an offense knows they can't run the ball on you or you don't allow them to. Then, you know what's coming. It's up to the defensive line to get to the QB while the secondary does its job and shuts the receivers down."
The Bearkats have made a living so far off stopping the run, they've also been effective defending the pass as well. Even though teams have thrown for 1,305 yards, the Kats have defended receivers well enough to keep them off the scoreboard. In terms of passing efficiency defense, which measures passing yardage, completion percentage, interception total, interception rate, touchdown total rate, yards per attempt and yards per completion, Sam Houston is also among the best in the country.
Opposing offenses complete a little better than 50 percent of its passes (122 of 225) and have thrown for just six touchdowns, while the Bearkats defense has reeled in nine interceptions.
In both of the Bearkats' conference games, Sam Houston had the responsibility of trying to shut down Central Arkansas' and Stephen F. Austin's prolific offenses, which both average more than 30 passes a game. In each of Sam Houston's respective games against the Bears and Lumberjacks, both averaged more than 400 yards of offense, the Kats held them to approximately 270 yards.
"We're very confident, though. (Secondary coach Ben) Beasley coaches us very well during the spring and the fall," safety Mike Littleton said. "We didn't get a lot of turnovers last year, but this year we're making things happen.
"We know last year, we gave up a lot of big passes. This year, we came in trying to limit the big plays. Our cornerbacks and DBs are locking up this year. We've got experience and we're making big plays, interceptions and fumble recoveries."
The defensive unit has also given the Kats a chance to win by keeping opponents off the scoreboard. In games against FCS squads, Sam Houston has only allowed double-digit points twice to Stephen F. Arkansas and Central Arkansas in 45-10 and 31-10 victories, respectively.
"You're limited in possessions. When you're getting 10 or 11 instead of 15 or 16, I think it makes a big difference. You don't have to stop them as many times," Stoker said. "If you come up with a couple of takeaways, you really limit the opportunities the offense has to score."
With several key conference games coming up, including today's homecoming contest against Nicholls, the Kats know they still have a lot of work left to do in order to come away with a Southland title and to return to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
"I think there's always things we can do better. If you talk to me six weeks from now and we're still there, we've obviously played pretty well," Stoker added.
"You've just got to prepare every week. It's a test every Saturday and our kids have kind of bought into that. We have to prepare ourselves every week. This is a very humbling business. You can play well, but it doesn't take but one quarter or one game to go the other way. To keep the concentration level, our kids have done a good job. Now, it's midseason, so the concentration level gets higher and higher once you get into games like this."