The Sam Houston State Bearka
ts are undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision, they’ve won 16 straight games dating back to 2010 and are coming off a nationally-televised blowout win over a very good Montana State team in the FCS quarterfinals.
Yet, the Bearkats may not even be the hottest team in the country right now.
That distinction clearly belongs to the Montana Grizzlies, who’ve won nine straight and enter tonight’s semifinal showdown with the Bearkats fresh off a 48-10 smashing of the Northern Iowa Panthers last Friday in Missoula.
Tonight’s semifinal between the No. 1 Bearkats (13-0) and No. 5 Griz (11-2) will kick off at 6 p.m. M.S.T. at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, TX.
And while the Griz are redhot, behind the play of quarterback Jordan Johnson, a three-headed running game which has piled up over 200 yards in each of its last nine games, and a UM defense allowing just 13 points and 260 total yards over its last six outings, the Bearkats have been perhaps even more impressive. And Griz head coach Robin Pflugrad has certainly noticed.
"Very good team," said Pflugrad. “Boy - fast and physical, that's for sure."
SHSU is all of that and more.
The Bearkats possess the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year in “Wildcat” QB/WR/RB. Sincere has rushed for over 900 yards and caught 25 balls for a whopping 449 yards. But the playmakers don’t end there. Freshman running back Tim Flanders is the Southland’s Offensive MVP after he put up staggering numbers of 1,273 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns. Flanders has also had nearly 500 yards receiving this season. There’s also sophomore QB Brian Bell, who’s another dual threat, and had a 55-yard touchdown run in the Bearkats 49-13 thrashing of MSU last Saturday. The Bears’ triple-option attack will be vicious, even against a great Montana defense. SHSU averages nearly 40 points and 500 yards per game at home, and the Kats put up 400 yards rushing on Montana State alone.
"They've kind of got a unique offense," Griz linebacker Alex Shaw said of the Bearkats. "They run an option, and they have kind of a unique style with their own flavor. But it just comes down to playing disciplined football.
"You've got to do your one-eleventh... You've got to be able to trust each other and you've just go to do what you're responsible for."
But defense is only half the battle when talking about stopping SHSU. The Bearkats also possess the No. 1 scoring defense and No. 1 rush defense in the FCS. Only three teams have rushed for over 100 yards on the Kats this season, and that includes an overtime win at FBS New Mexico. The SHSU defense features an Oklahoma transfer at one defensive end and a Texas A&M transfer at another, as well as Southland Defensive MVP, CB Dax Swanson, who has seven interceptions on the season.
"They've got good players," said Shaw, a senior who is third on the Griz with 75 tackles. "They're a good team. They're undefeated, you know? But we're going to come to down and we're going to be ready to play."
And the Griz will need to be ready tonight. While Montana is perhaps playing the best football of anyone left in the FCS, the Griz will need probably their best effort of the season to advance to their third FCS title game in the last four years.
Montana and SHSU have a good history too. The Griz are 5-1 all-time against the Kats, but the lone loss came on a steamy night in September of 2004 in Huntsville. The rest of the Griz wins over SHSU came inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, including a beatdown over the Kats in the 2004 FCS semifinals.
There was a lot at stake on that cold December day in Missoula, and the stakes are again high tonight in Texas. This game is a matchup of two of the most explosive teams in the FCS on both sides of the ball, and the winner will get a chance to face either North Dakota State or Georgia Southern in the FCS championship game Jan. 7 in Frisco, TX.
The Grizzlies are looking to go back to the FCS title game for an unprecedented third time in four years. Montana lost the 2008 FCS championship game against Richmond and in 2009, the Griz were beaten by Villanova in the title tilt. UM has been to seven FCS championships, winning in 1995 and 2001. SHSU has never reached the FCS finals.
"I'm excited too because we win, and we stay hungry,” senior Griz linebacker Caleb McSurdy said. “ Our focus doesn't change. And that's what I'm most excited about."
Tonight’s semifinal game between the Griz and Kats will get underway at 6 p.m. M.S.T. and will be televised nationally on ESPN.