One of the important reasons Sam Houston State reached the NCAA Division I National Championship game in 2011 was the tenacity of the Bearkat defense.
The Kats were among the best in the country against the run, making opposing teams work awfully hard to move the ball and put points on the scoreboard.
In the first few weeks of the 2012 season, the Bearkats appeared not to be a team that completely shut down opposing teams, but instead were playing to bend, but not break.
Over the last few games, the Kats defense has turned it around and are playing like their old, dominant selves.
"The (coaching staff) has been preaching playoff intensity and over these last few weeks, we've been playing better and better," Kats senior linebacker Darius Taylor said. "We started off not too bad defensively, but we were giving up more than what we like. Now, we're rolling and we're playing ball."
In their first four games against Division I teams - not including the regular-season opener against Division II Incarnate Word - the Bearkats gave up 1,688 yards (422 per game) and 121 points (30.25) combined against Baylor, Central Arkansas, Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin. The Kats also managed six total turnovers (all interceptions with no fumble recoveries) in those four games.
Sam Houston wound up with just two wins, including a thrilling 51-43 victory over the Lumberjacks at Reliant Stadium in the Battle of the Piney Woods.
"For whatever reason, we weren't playing with speed earlier in the year. Sometimes I think you've got to get games under your belt," Kats coach Willie Fritz said. "We were so careful about not getting anybody hurt and we didn't do a whole lot of scrimmaging and I think that hampered our early-season progress. It usually hurts you more defensively than it does offensively because of the tackling and the leverage and speed of blitzes and playing blocks and that kind of stuff."
In order to remain in contention for the Southland Conference championship and the FCS playoffs as well as a chance to return to Frisco for the national championship, the Kats knew they would have to get better on the defensive end.
In the past three games against Nicholls, McNeese State and Lamar, the defense looked much like the unit from 2011. The Kats held those teams to 263, 210 and 181 yards, respectively.
In the four games against Baylor, Central Arkansas, Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston allowed 1,290 yards (322.5 per game) through the air. However, in the last three contests, the Kats have tightened their pass coverage and held Nicholls, McNeese and Lamar to an average of 146 passing yards.
"We've been able to run more blitzes and get more pressure. The D-line and the linebackers are coming together," senior safety Robert Shaw said. "Instead of thinking, we could just go out there and play and that's helped out the secondary a lot."
The Kats have also been able to get their hands on the ball and force plenty of turnovers. Sam Houston has come up with multiple turnovers in each of the last four games and eight (five fumble recoveries and three interceptions) in the last three games alone.
"We knew we were going to start getting turnovers, but we just had to keep being ball hawks," Shaw said. "Eventually, it was going to come. There was times where we had chances, but it just didn't fall our way. We just keep working hard at it and keep practicing it every Wednesday."
As a result of keeping the opposing offense under wraps with fewer yardage and more turnovers, the Bearkats have been able to keep teams off the scoreboard, holding teams to just 17 total points in the last three games.
With two conference games remaining, including today's contest against Southeastern Louisiana, before the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, the Bearkats will need to have the same kind of dominant defensive effort in order to come away with at least a share of the Southland title and lay a claim for one of the 20 coveted playoff spots.
"We're playing with speed. We're just playing fast," Fritz said. "I've seen it the last few weeks. We're blitzing with speed. We're closing on people. We're playing coverage with confidence. That's how we need to play."
Tickets for Saturday's Southeastern Louisiana game and also for the Bearkats' regular season finale at Texas A&M in two weeks are available online at www.gobearkats.com/tickets . Gates at Bowers Stadium today open at 12:30 p.m. with kickoff at 2 p.m.
Fans are encouraged to get to the stadium early to avoid lines.