Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler is not at all new to the FCS playoff experience. Entering this spring’s postseason, Keeler had never lost a home playoff game in his coaching career, which spans stints at Rowan (Division III) and his alma mater Delaware in addition to his current run with the Bearkats.
Now, his No. 2-seeded SHSU squad, though assured home field throughout the preliminary rounds, faced a loaded half of the 16-team bracket. Could the Southland Conference champions continue to defend Bowers Stadium and ultimately advance to earn a trip up the road for the national championship game?
Well, after a gauntlet of home playoff games versus Monmouth, North Dakota State, and James Madison, Keeler’s home-turf playoff perfection is intact, and Sam Houston is set to battle top-seeded South Dakota State in a national title clash in Frisco, Texas.
The Bearkats’ first championship appearance since 2012 is a step in the direction that Keeler desired when he publicly stated that he needed to reengineer his team, long known for high-flying offense, to better match up physically with the toughest that the Missouri Valley and the CAA have to offer late in the playoffs.
“As I told the team, the changes I made after going to the playoffs five straight years weren’t [made] to get us to the championship, they were [made] to go win the championship,” Keeler said Tuesday.
Those changes were evident in SHSU’s semifinal victory over No. 3 seed James Madison. The Kats, after trailing 24-3 at halftime with no momentum to speak of, used a furious third-quarter comeback to rally past the Dukes and punch their ticket to Frisco.
They will need a similar show of mettle against South Dakota State, as the Jackrabbits are riding high following their 33-3 cruise past Delaware in the semifinals. The Jacks’ personality on the field already stands out to Keeler, who coached against SDSU in a regular-season win in his time at Delaware.
“The one thing that I really notice about South Dakota State, they play with a very similar edge that we do. I mean, we both have very edgy teams out there. It’s gonna be interesting,” Keeler told HERO Sports with a laugh.
While the game-within-the-game chippy play potential carries plenty of intrigue, the matchups illustrated by the stat sheet make Sam Houston and South Dakota State all the more compelling as final foes.
Unequivocally, the Bearkats have made the derisive “Soft Houston” label, which was for several years lobbed at them by fans of other elite FCS teams, an antiquated term. SHSU has held 15 of its last 21 opponents under 100 total rushing yards over the past two seasons. That stingy ground defense will be called upon to corral Jackrabbit tailbacks Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis, plus slippery mobile quarterback Mark Gronowski, who dashed Delaware with all facets of his game.
When Sam Houston has the ball, it will be paramount that it affords QB Eric Schmid time to find receiving threats Cody Chrest and Jequez Ezzard. Mauling in the trenches all day, SDSU recorded more sacks (seven) than it allowed points against UD while knocking Blue Hens QB Nolan Henderson out of the game for a time at one critical early-first-quarter juncture.
Keeler, then, is glad to see his offensive line at greater strength entering the national championship.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job managing our way,” he told HERO Sports of progress on the line amidst injury struggles. “Actually, we’ve gotten healthier the next week and the next week, and so now we feel pretty good that we have eight or nine guys that we can play in this game. But we were [once] at a time where we were playing five that weren’t in great shape in terms of health and really didn’t have more than one or two that could have gone in with an injury. With that being said, I think we’re further along with the offensive line in terms of our health than we were maybe three weeks ago, four weeks ago.”
The Bearkats do have O-line work remaining, their head coach noted, saying to HERO Sports, “That’s still a bit of a work in progress. It’s the one area that I think for us to be consistently the best team in the country, we want to look like James Madison, we want to look like South Dakota State, we want to look like North Dakota State [on the offensive line], and we’re not quite there yet.”
Despite this, “Sam-Not-Soft” Houston, led by Schmid and a powerful defense, is in position for its first FCS championship. In two prior Frisco appearances, the Kats fell to NDSU in consecutive seasons. But that was before the Keeler era kicked off in Huntsville. If the third time is the charm for SHSU, Keeler will etch his place in the FCS coaching Mount Rushmore by becoming the first head coach in FCS history to win a national title at multiple subdivision schools (Delaware, 2003).