The Bearkats are a different football team with sophomore Brian Bell at quarterback. That was evident Saturday when Bell returned to action against Stephen F. Austin.
Bell was sidelined in last week's win over UTSA due to concussion-like symptoms, but returned healthy against SFA. The young quarterback gave a solid performance, completing 16-of-23 passes for 214 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Bearkats' 45-10 blowout victory.
After Saturday's game, SHSU coach Willie Fritz said Bell had the most impressive week of practice he's seen from him, even though by his own admission Bell did not have his best game.
Still, his numbers Saturday easily outdo his statistics from last year's Battle of the Piney Woods when he completed 24-of-38 passes for 177 yards and one touchdown.
In Bell's absence against UTSA, backup quarterback Greg Sprowls completed only 7-of-18 passes for 124 yards with one interception and no touchdowns.
Bell's presence on the field gave the 11th-ranked Bearkats a certain level of confidence.
"He's the person we practice with every day," wide receiver Torrance Williams said. "We have a rhythm and a routine. He knows what I'm going to do and I know how he thinks.
"It's not a big dropoff trying to get a feel for the other quarterbacks but when (Bell's) back, everything just runs smoother, not because of who it is but because we practice it.
"We're always working with him, so everything runs a bit smoother."
As the son of his high school coach in China Spring, Bell is critical of himself and expects to make the right decision every time he has the ball.
Toward the end of Saturday's game, Bell approached Fritz and told him he would play a lot better from now on. This, in the midst of the more impressive victory of his young career.
"There's a couple of opportunities he probably wishes he had back," Fritz said. "I don't think he was as crisp today, but he does a really super job of managing the game.
"He's a highly intelligent football player. He never gets to where he's not in sync with what we're trying to do. And we have some guys who we can throw the ball deep with also. That's the part of our game we wanted to expand on offensively from last season and we're doing a nice job of that."
At last season's Battle of the Piney Woods, the Bearkats were perhaps one overthrown pass away from challenging SFA's 31-28 advantage late in the fourth quarter.
Then-freshmen Bell barely placed the ball outside the reach of freshman Richard Sincere's fingertips, a moment neither of the young Bearkats have forgotten or dismissed.
"The thing about that play is that we had Brandon Closner wide open on the other side," Sincere said.
This year's more experienced Bell perhaps would have noticed Closner streaking down the right side of the field.
During Saturday's postgame press conference, Bell mentioned how the Kats have been thinking about the SFA loss in 2010 since it happened.
"There's not a time when we're going in the weight room or going to practice when we're not talking about beating SFA," he said.
This week, even with a struggling Nicholls (1-5) team visiting Bowers Stadium for homecoming at SHSU, the Bearkats will still be talking about beating SFA.
But now it's more of a memory than a goal, and to think the Bearkats could have been just one concussion away from seizing the moment.
"Last week it was pretty tough suiting up and just standing there," Bell said. "There's nothing like playing with this group of guys. I wouldn't pick anybody else in the country over the group of guys we have at Sam Houston.
"I trust every guy to my right and my left. I'm just blessed to come out here and play with these guys."
The nationally-ranked Bearkats will put their 5-0 record on the line against the Nicholls Colonels Saturday at 2 p.m. at Elliott T. Bowers Stadium. Saturday's contest is the annual SHSU Homecoming tilt.
Tickets for the game are available online now at www.gobearkats.com/tickets or at the SHSU athletic ticket office Monday through Friday. The ticket office is located in the Ron Mafrige Field House and hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The ticket office telephone is (936) 294-1729.