Two teams, one game, one conference champion. The top team in the Southland Conference will be decided in a winner-take-all championship game on Saturday at Bowers Stadium.
The No. 1 Sam Houston State Bearkats will look to solidify their place as the top team in the conference when the team takes on the No. 11 University of Central Arkansas Bears.
“It’s pretty simple, no one gives you a championship, you have to take it,” head coach K.C. Keeler said. “We’re playing a really good opponent. Obviously, they’re undefeated in the conference with their only loss being a hiccup in the middle of the season. Looking at their team is almost like looking in a mirror, they play fast, they’re very athletic and they have one of the top defenses in the country.”
Last Saturday the Bearkats went on the road and reeled out a 48-16 victory over Northwestern State. It was a game that saw the Kats trailing for the first time all season, but Keeler and the team hope to clean things up this weekend against a stellar Bears squad.
“I tell the team all the time, if we play clean we win,” Keeler said. “Playing clean means knowing your assignments, making your calls and taking care of adjustments. I’m really proud with how this team has prepared over the course of this
season, but I just think we need to take our preparation up a notch this week because we’re playing for everything this weekend.”
Junior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe and the rest of the Bearkat offense have had a historic season thus far. Individual players, as well as the team in general, have broken a handful of records. The prolific offense currently leads the country in total offense with 592.4 yards per game and scoring offense, averaging 53.7 points per game. The team ranks second in passing offense with 382.6 ypg and third in passing efficiency, which sits at 177.17.
Briscoe and the Kats will look to keep their hot momentum alive on offense against a pesky Bears defense that ranks first in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and interceptions in the Southland Conference.
“We can’t make mistakes,” Briscoe said. “We have to make them beat us. They’re great up front. They’re probably the best we’ll see up front, whether we make it to the National Championship or not. They’re that good. We just have to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves with mistakes. We have to stick with our rules and play clean.”
A key matchup that the Bearkat coaching staff will have to keep tabs on throughout the game is the Kats’ offensive line versus the Bears’ defensive line. UCA ranks fourth in the conference in sacks with 24, which is right behind SHSU’s 28.
“They’re really physical up front and athletic,” Keeler said. “The key matchup on offense is going to be our offensive line against their defensive line. There is no question that their defensive line is the strongest part of their whole team. They definitely command a lot of attention and our offensive line is going to be in for a battle.”
Unlike the balanced passing and rushing attack that SHSU showcases, UCA is known for their powerful ground game. The Bears rank first in the conference in rushing offense, averaging 224.4 rushing yards per game.
The two key players in their attack are freshman running back Carlos Blackman and senior running back Antwon Wells. The dual headed threat in the backfield combine to average 100.9 ypg and have reached the end zone 12 times.
“We know they have several backs who can run the ball,” defensive end P.J. Hall said. “We have to make sure that we stop the run, fill the gaps and get after their quarterback when they start to pass the ball.”
Hall is third in the conference in sacks this season with nine. The Bearkat defensive line will have a huge impact in Saturday’s game. The Bears have allowed the most sacks to their opposition, which favors heavily for the Kats’ strong defensive front.
“Their offensive line is very physical,” Keeler said. “We have to knock them back and get pressure on their quarterback. We have to flush him left and contain him. Again, it’s almost a little bit like looking in a mirror. We’re pretty evenly matched.”
For the first time in 28 years, two undefeated teams in the Southland Conference will meet in the season finale to determine the champion. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m.
“You go through a whole season to get into a game like this,” Keeler said. “35 years of doing this thing and I’ve only had one undefeated season. This is a special team and we have a great challenge in front of us. I think walking away from this game Saturday we’re going to have a better feel for how good we really are.”