K.C. Keeler-led Bearkats also seeking first crown

HUNTSVILLE, Tex. – The Sam Houston State football program has had a very similar trajectory as South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits and Bearkats have found themselves as one of the elites in the FCS, but a national championship has eluded them both.

On Sunday, each program will have a chance to capture its first title.

The only difference between SHSU and SDSU is the Bearkats have played in the title game twice before.

SHSU went to the title game in both 2011 and 2012. The Bearkats ran into an opponent that SDSU is very familiar with and has struggled with, as well – North Dakota State. The Bison beat the Bearkats in back-to-back seasons 17-6 and 39-13.

The Bearkats made the playoffs each of the next five seasons, but were unable to reach the finals. They made the semifinals in 2014, 2015 and 2017 but were blown out in each game. SHSU fell to NDSU 35-3 in 2014, lost to Jacksonville State 65-7 in 2015 and was bounced by the Bison once again 55-13 in 2017. 

Head coach Willie Fritz left SHSU for a job with Georgia Southern in 2014. Fritz had a record of 40-15 at SHSU and now coaches Tulane. The Bearkats wanted to continue what they built and hire someone with pedigree and they did just that with K.C. Keeler.

K.C. Keeler

K.C. Keeler already has three FCS titles to his name. He won the national championship at Delaware in 2003, 2007 and 2010. With SHSU’s win against James Madison in the semifinals, Keeler tied Jim Tressel for the most FCS Playoffa wins all time.

“I think the whole playoff mentality that I bring to the team in terms of ‘it’s all about playing one game.’ Eventually their going to tell you, ‘you lost and collect your equipment,’ or ‘there’s nobody left to play.’ That’s the mindset. We talk about no one other than the opponent in front of us. … I constantly remind them about guys collecting the equipment because it’s how you prepare. … You want to be able to say ‘they beat us. We gave it everything we got.’ That’s kind of how I approach [the national championship and the playoffs],” Keeler said.

Keeler is in his seventh season as the Bearkats’ head coach. This is the sixth time he’s led SHSU to the playoffs, but he came to SHSU with one goal in mind – win a national championship.

“This [game] is the one where you get the gold ring. This is the one where it’s the ultimate goal for everyone who plays this sport. It’s the one that I talked about in my very first press conference at Delaware and my very first press conference here. The changes that I made after going to the playoffs five straight years weren’t to get us to a championship, they were so we could win a championship,” Keeler said.  

Keeler has an all-time record of 233-95-1 and is 67-22 at SHSU. The 233 wins is eighth among 597 active head coaches at all NCAA levels. 

Defensive line runs the ‘D’

The Bearkats have 37 sacks and 95 tackles for a loss on the season. Those are first in the FCS by a wide margin. SHSU’s opponents have lost 373 yards this season, which is first as well.

Junior linebacker Markel Perry and senior defensive lineman Jahari Kay lead the way for SHSU. Both of them have 13 TFLs this season. Perry has 6 1/2 sacks while Kay has six.

The Bearkats are eighth in the FCS in rush defense, giving up just 78.9 yards per game. SHSU has not given up a 100-yard rusher in 20 consecutive games dating back to its season opener in 2019.

SHSU’s pass defense is not as impressive. The Bearkats give up 277.5 yards per game through the air. They’ve given up more than 250 yards in six of their nine games this season. However, the Bearkats do have a turnover margin of plus-7 and they’ve forced seven turnovers in the playoffs.

Explosive offense

Sam Houston State has skill players all over the field on offense. The Bearkats average 450 yards of offense per game, which is 10th in the FCS, and 39.1 points, which ranks seventh. They are the only team in the top-10 in both categories that have played more than seven games.

SHSU has had 34 plays this season that have gone for more than 30 yards.

Junior quarterback Eric Shmid has thrown for 2,599 yards, which is second in the FCS, and 17 touchdowns. 

Jequez Eddard is Shmid’s leading receiver. He has 753 yards on just 28 catches. His 26.89 yards per catch are the most in the FCS for players with more than 25 receptions. 

Ife Ayadi is not far behind with 515 yards on 25 catches –  20.60 yards per grab.

The two have combined for nine touchdowns. Eddard has seven.

Junior running back Ramon Jefferson leads the Bearkats’ rushing attack. He averages 72.89 yards per game and has seven touchdowns on the season.

Cardiac ‘Kats

Each of SHSU’s three playoff wins were by one score. 

The Bearkats led 21-0 against Monmouth in the first round. The Hawks came back and trailed 21-15 with 48 seconds left when SHSU’s Isaiah Downes had an interception in the end zone on fourth-and-goal to secure the win.

SHSU trailed NDSU 20-17 with just under four minutes left in the quarterfinals when Schmid ran it into the end zone from 6 yards out to make it 24-20 with 3:39 left. The Bison drove the ball inside the SHSU 25-yard-line, but the Bearkat defense forced a turnover on downs.

The Bearkats found themselves down 24-3 at halftime in the semifinals against James Madison. SHSU proceeded to outscore JMU 28-3 in the third quarter to grab the lead. The Bearkats then led 38-35 with 2:09 left in the game and JMU’s Connor Madden missed a 51-yard field goal that would’ve tied the game. SHSU ran the clock out and secured the victory.


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