The plan was simple: Stop Western Illinois' running attack and the rest would follow.
The Bearkats fulfilled that part of the game plan, and for the most part, had their way on defense. Sam Houston's offense did the rest and the Kats breezed to a 20-6 victory over the Leathernecks in Thursday night's season opener at Bowers Stadium.
"I'm really proud of our guys. We made some mistakes in the game, but it's great to make mistakes and win and learn from them," Sam Houston head coach Willie Fritz said. "There were some opportunities for us to possibly put the game away, but we didn't quite do it.
"Overall, it was a great game in all three phases."
Starting out, the Leathernecks had some success moving the ball for a pair of first downs. Then, the Sam Houston defense started getting into the backfield, which proved to be a common theme.
With Western Illinois threatening at the Kats' 32, defensive ends Jarrett Brown and Andrew Weaver nailed quarterback Will Lunt for consecutive sacks to take away a field goal opportunity.
The Leathernecks' running game could never get off the ground throughout the first half, thanks in large part to the Bearkats' aggressive defense, which held Western Illinois to minus-6 rushing yards through two quarters.
"They're a big running team and we prepared hard for these guys," said Brown, who recorded two sacks. "We constantly work on stopping the run in practice. I think, as a defense, we did a good job."
With the Bearkat defense holding their own, the door was open for the offense to take command.
The running game had a little trouble getting going, but SHSU sophomore quarterback Brian Bell and his receivers were on the same page. They dissected Western Illinois' secondary throughout the first half.
Twice in the first half, Sam Houston drove deep into Leathernecks territory, but had drives stall in the red zone and settled for Miguel Antonio field goals of 30 and 31 yards to take a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Just before halftime, the Kats finally found the end zone.
On a drive that started with a nifty 37-yard catch by sophomore receiver Trey Diller, Bell found wideout Grant Merritt near the goal line for a 7-yard score and the Kats took a 13-0 lead into the break.
"Our offensive line did an amazing job in the first and second half. I can't complain, I had all the time in the world back there," said Bell, who was 11 of 15 for 120 yards in the first half and finished with 198 passing yards and two TDs. "The receivers did a good job catching the ball. That makes my job a lot easier when I've got all the time in the world and they're that wide open."
The Kats' offense continued to churn down the field in the second half. On the first possession of the third quarter, Sam Houston got a pair of first downs before Bell hit a wide-open Ryan Wilson after getting the defense to bite on a play-action fake. Wilson sprinted the final 25 yards for a 44-yard touchdown catch-and-run, which extended the Kats' lead to 20-0.
The Leathernecks finally started to find a rhythm midway through the third quarter and got into the red zone, thanks to a 15-yard Bearkat penalty. Lunt attempted to loft the ball into the back corner of the end zone, but Sam Houston sophomore cornerback Bookie Sneed took away a prime scoring opportunity, wrestling away the ball from receiver Terriun Crump.
Western Illinois did manage to get on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.
After a solid punt by senior Matt Foster, which pinned the Leathernecks inside their own 10, backup quarterback Josh Hudson hit Crump along the sideline. Sneed was unable to make the stop and Crump took it all the way for a 92-yard score and prevent a shutout.
"We didn't want to give that up," Brown said. "We still got after it, so they wouldn't score again."
Nursing a multiple-possession lead, the Bearkats kept feeding the ball to Tim Flanders, who rushed for 100 yards on 24 carries. Trying to wind precious seconds off the clock, Sam Houston forced Western Illinois to come up with a defensive stop. But the Leathernecks were unsuccessful and could get back within striking distance.
In the second half, the Kats controlled the ball for more than 21 minutes, preventing any chance of a comeback.
"I thought we had great ball control with our offense," Fritz said. "That clock was running, running, running.
"I think we kind of wore them down in the second half. We could've gone another quarter and kept playing."
Sam Houston will have a little more than two weeks before its next game, which will be the Kats' Southland Conference opener against Central Arkansas in Huntsville on Sept. 17.
"We're going have a good time with this one," said Bell of Thursday's victory. "We've got a long week ahead of us. It's a nice little break, but Central Arkansas is on our minds now. Our focus is now week three."
Tickets for the UCA game and the other four remaining home games at Bowers Stadium plus "The Battle of the Piney Woods" presented by YP.com are on sale now online at www.gobearkats.com/tickets .
Fans also may purchase ducats at the Bearkat Athletic Ticket office in the Ron Mafrige Field House at Bowers. Ticket office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The ticket office telephone is (936) 294-1729.