On paper, Saturday's road game against Nicholls State is one the Bearkats are favored in, as a nationally ranked FCS team going against a Nicholls squad whose only win this season came against Evangel, a private liberal arts university with just over 2,000 students.
But football games are never played on paper, usually grass or turf - a field of some sort. The Nicholls game is unique because it's the first 3-4 defensive set SHSU faces all season. So far, the SHSU opponents have presented similar 4-3 fronts, some more successful than others.
The Colonels haven't had much success this season, nor has their luck against Sam Houston been great historically (11-15 all-time, last Nicholls victory against SHSU in 2005). Still, they present a wrinkle for the defending Southland Conference champions.
"Nicholls, obviously they're not known in the conference as a powerful team, but I think their scheme on defense is a real challenge for us," SHSU running back Ryan Wilson said. "Their three-down front is going to free up some backers for our linemen. When you watch them on film, they play extremely hard. They're well-coached, disciplined; they have big guys up front that can cause some problems.
"On paper it's not the most impressive team, but when you actually turn on the film, watch them and study them, they're actually a lot better than expected."
With it being the first time the Bearkats face a 3-4, the main adjustment is restructuring blocking schemes. Nicholls will sometimes show a four-man front, but even with three down they'll bring pressure with a fourth and fifth guy, too.
SHSU head coach Willie Fritz said the defenders come from different angles and leverage, which could disrupt the offensive flow if the Bearkats don't respond appropriately.
"You've got to be assignment-sound with these guys," Fritz said. "If you're not assignment-sound, they're going to get a bunch of minus plays."
That's what happened to SHSU last season in a 47-7 blowout against Nicholls. The Bearkats were up, 24-0, at halftime but struggled offensively until the second quarter. Fortunately for SHSU, Nicholls couldn't get out of its own way. The Colonels coughed up the ball in three interceptions and two fumbles.
"We really didn't play very well offensively last year, but we played lights out on defense and in the kicking game and it looks like we blew them out," Fritz said. "We had a hard time moving the ball for the whole first half, but they had five turnovers."
Fritz described the matchup with Nicholls as "a real thinking game" on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Colonels run a variety of shifts and motion in their formation, trading the tight ends and trying to create a mismatch within the defense.
At this point, the game becomes mental for the Bearkats. The team won't do much physically leading up until Saturday night.
What SHSU wants to get out of this game, aside from a win, is to maintain a level of consistency. Fritz said Sam Houston hasn't played a solid four quarters yet, only performing well in spurts.
That observation traces back to the Baylor game when the Bearkats weren't nearly as poised in the second half as they had been in the first half when they built a 20-10 lead. The next week, SHSU dropped a tough one against Central Arkansas after giving up back-to-back touchdowns in the waning minutes of the game - the first conference loss for the Bearkats since November 2010.
Even with a 51-43 win against Stephen F. Austin in the Battle of the Piney Woods last week, SHSU didn't have a first down until the second quarter, and both teams traded momentum throughout the game.
"We haven't played well consistently and we've got to do that," Fritz said.
True to their champion form, the Bearkats want to dominate Nicholls, but they aren't taking the matchup lightly.
Nicholls senior linebacker Jordan Piper leads the defense with 49 tackles (total) and 1 ½ sacks in four games this season.
"They're good scheme-wise. They're pretty multiple with their 3-4 stuff, and they're pretty good physically," offensive coordinator Doug Ruse said. "They've got some good players over there."