Passing Game Has Added New Dimension
While Sam Houston was able to run through opposing defenses in 14 of its 15 games last season, against North Dakota State in the national championship game, the Kats had trouble running the ball and did not have the kind of passing game to relieve pressure in the backfield.
Because they were mostly one-dimensional, the top-ranked Bearkats became predictable and were shut out of the end zone for the first time all season, losing last January's game to the Bison 17-6.
That got the wheels turning for Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz.
If the Bearkats were to have another opportunity at a national championship, the offense needed to make some changes.
"We were in that stadium over there," said the Kats' third-year head coach, referring to FC Dallas Stadium, site of last season's national championship game. "It was 17 to 6 with, I don't know, eight minutes to go and we had the ball. I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be tough,' because we weren't that kind of team to get two touchdowns to win the ballgame. It was.
"At that point, I said in my mind that we've got to throw the ball better. I don't want to diminish winning 14 games in a row because I'm a firm believer that you have to run the football to win championships. They did a very good job of ganging up on our option attack and left themselves vulnerable to some things we could do, but we weren't capable of doing it."
The chance to make some big changes opened up when offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse, offensive line coach Derek Warehime and wide receivers coach Jeff Conway all left the Sam Houston program for jobs at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
In order to address the needs to develop the aerial attack, Fritz hired Western Illinois' Doug Ruse to take over as offensive coordinator, former Missouri Southern coach Bart Tatum to run the offensive line and Matt Barrett also from Missouri Southern to coach the wide receivers.
With the additions of the new Bearkat coaches, along with tight ends coach Kyle Segler, Fritz planned on Sam Houston to still be a strong running team, but he also wanted the Kats to be more effective through the air.
"When coach Ruse got here, everyone was fired up," Sam Houston quarterback Brian Bell said. "He's a great guy and really fun to play for. Everyone really bought in to what he wanted to do with our offense. There's a lot of similarities to what we did last year, but he also brings his little dimensions to it, which has really benefited us offensively. Really, we've made a lot of strides, offensively we feel like."
The new-look offense found a few bumps in the road early in the season as the Kats struggled with consistency in the second half in losses to Baylor and Central Arkansas.
Starting with a 50-6 blowout victory against Texas Southern and a 51-43 thrilling triumph over rival Stephen F. Austin, the Bearkats began to show that they could be just explosive through the air as they are running the ball.
In each of Sam Houston's seven straight wins through the regular season, the Kats offense put up at least 41 points every week.
"At the beginning of the season, we had a few kinks but everybody needs to work out a few kinks," Kats center Chris Rogers said. "We kind of fell apart and everybody was waiting for things to happen and not trying to make things happen.
"I feel like we've come a hundred million yards from there. We've come a long way, progressing and becoming multi-dimensional and doing things that haven't done since then."
While the Bearkats got consistent production from running back Timothy Flanders (269 carries for 1,589 yards and 17 touchdowns), the play of Bell helped carry Sam Houston to another Southland Conference championship and back to the playoffs. Against FCS competition, Bell has completed 144 of 220 (65 percent) of his passes for 2,025 yards and 22 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
"Brian's a stud and he just makes good decisions," Fritz said. "He throws a great ball. He's a smart player. What we run is probably not tailor-made for him. He would be very successful in an offense that threw it 50 times a game. That's not what we do. He does very well with the option attack and does a great job throwing the ball."
Also helping to make the passing offense work has been the play of the wide receiving corps, which includes senior Trey Diller (58 receptions for 881 yards and four touchdowns) and Chance Nelson (33 receptions for 662 yards and nine TDs).
"All of our receivers, they came in and as soon as they got the opportunity to catch the ball, they were all out catching the ball. You've got to love that from them," Rogers said. "They're also all good blockers and that's what no one sees out of them, but we as O-linemen see out of them. Not many people see that or notice that, but it's a huge part of the game and that frees another guy up. We have stud blockers out there for us and that's big for us."
Bell, thanks to his mobility along with the protection from the offensive line, has also been kept clean for the most part with only five sacks allowed during the 2012 campaign.
"It's definitely a compliment to us, but all of us on the line, we don't like to look at the stats or any of that stuff," Bearkats senior offensive tackle Kaleb Hopson said. "Our stats are whenever Tim rushes for 200-something yards. That's a lot of pride for us. Those guys, they're pretty sure to let us know that."
With the new dimension of the passing game that has certainly paid dividends this season, the Bearkats hope that move toward being just as dangerous throwing the ball will put them over the top and can help bring home a national championship.