As the tune to the Sonny & Cher song goes, so do the Bison in FCS playoff appearances and wins. Sunday we get another common playoff opponent in Sam Houston State. In fact, they are the second most prolific FCS playoff competitor behind the Herd, having competed in 24 games during the last ten years (17 wins & 7 losses with four of those losses coming at the hands of the Bison). What can we expect?
Coach Keller was downright embarrassed by the boat racing the Herd gave his team in 2017 semis (a 55-13 demolishing that came with 471 yards rushing by the Ram powered ground game and 9.8 YPC). He said “the Bison men beat his Sam Houston boys”. He vowed to change the landscape. His 2017 team not only played bad against the Herd (642 total yards, 471 rushing and 55 points), they gave up 439 yards, 180 yards rushing and 29 points to everybody else (bad defense).
In 2018 they didn’t see much improvement lowering these defensive stats to 428 YPG, 208 YPG rushing and scoring of 28.1 PPG. 2019 started to see the turn around with new personnel adapting to the new philosophy. They dropped to 8th in the FCS in scoring defense at 17.8 PPG while allowing only 330 YPG in total defense and led the FCS with a mere 69.9 YPG in rushing.
This spring they are giving up 17.1 PPG (11th in FCS), 58.9 YPG rushing (3rd in FCS) and 364.1 YPG total defense (52 out of 97 with spring FCS games). They lead the FCS in sacks with 31 (4.47 PG) and TFL’s with 46 (11 PG). Should the Rams even show up?
During this transition of style the Bearkats have missed the playoffs two straight years. In 2017 their offense averaged 552 YPG and 45.6 PPG coming into the Fargo Dome. We held them to 13 points, 63 yards rushing and 352 total yards (some movement between the 20’s but couldn’t get ball into end zone). 2018 Bearkats slowed on offense to 419.8 YPG (34th in FCS), scored 30 PPG (41st in FCS), but went backwards in rushing with 124.2 YPG (92nd in FCS). 2019 saw some turn around to 146.9 YPG rushing (66th in FCS), scoring at 31.9 PPG (32nd in FCS) and Total offense at 428 YPG (24th in FCS).
Coming into Sunday’s contest, Sam Houston is scoring 41.4 PPG (4th in FCS), 9th in total offense at 486.4 YPG and rushing an all important 177.7 YPG (22nd in FCS). So are the Bearkats a southern version of JMU? Good offense merged with a harassing, stifling defense? I am not ready to coronate them to that level. Here’s why.
We just saw it in the Big Sky’s two spring playoff teams, Weber and E Washington. They were both given a sweet schedule to get them in the playoffs. The MVFC would have had them playing in season, not the Big Sky. The Eagles only played one playoff quality team, U C Davis and lost to an average Idaho team. The average Sagarin rating for the Eagles spring schedule was 158.4. In a normal season, other than an AQ from weak conference, playoff teams fall under 150 in Sagarin. The Herd’s average was 126.5 with only YSU being above the 150 mark at 152. So we dispatched the Eagles as usual. In the last four meetings the average score has been 42.5 to 26.3. The Eagles are a prolific offense with average to bad defense. Strength of schedule means something, that’s why SIU could beat the top ranked Big Sky School, Weber.
How does this strength of schedule play with Sam Houston? They played teams with an average Sagarin rating of 175.3. Folks, that’s 50 teams worse on average than the Herd’s schedule. Plus they didn’t play one team under 150 rating until they played Monmouth and they were lucky to get out alive.
How do I see Sunday playing out? I think the Bearcats offense is good, but they didn’t play one top 50 defense until Monmouth and they only generated 257 total yards of offense with 124 yards rushing (75 came on two rushes). Three out of the last four games they scored 27, 24 and 21 points. They aren’t as explosive as Eastern Washington and played a way weaker schedule.
I think the Rams will win the battle in the trenches. Monmouth gained 163 yards rushing (negated by 62 yards lost on 6 sacks and some TFL’s). I don’t think they will do that against the Rams. I still think the Rams are probably the best OL in country (SDSU’s is as good). Monmouth didn’t have Watson, Gindorff and Babicz to throw at to mitigate the pass rush. Also Cam Miller is more mobile than Monmouth’s QB. Even with all their good run stats and sacks, the Bearkats have given up over 300 YPG in passing. They are burnable there. Roehl and Hedberg will dial up some passing schemes to take advantage of that weakness.
Vegas and others have the Herd by 2.7 to 5 points. I say the Herd wins by double digits pulling away in the second half. Go Bison!