Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Sam Houston withstood injuries, penalties, and a more than competitive Stephen F. Austin (3-2, 0-1 AQ7) squad to complete a comeback from a 20-6 deficit with 15 4th quarter points to take their 10th consecutive victory in the Battle of the Piney Woods at Houston’s NRG Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Sam Houston (4-0, 2-0 AQ7) won its annual rivalry game with SFA in dramatic fashion without its starting All-America quarterback Eric Schmid who was held out due to presumed concussion protocols, and kicker Seth Morgan (Covid-19 protocols).
Backup quarterback Keegan Shoemaker got the nod and threw for 222 yards on 16 of 29 passing with 2 touchdowns and a lone interception. Shoemaker’s remarkable play in one of the toughest environments he’ll play all season certainly solidified his position as Sam’s #2 quarterback and gives a glimmer of hope to the post-Eric Schmid future at the position.
SFA jumped out to a 3-0 lead with a 49-yard Chris Campos field goal followed by a 15-yard pass from Trae Self to All-America hopeful wideout Xavier Gipson to give SFA a 10-0 lead to close the first quarter. SFA would tack on another Campos field goal from 25 yards out to take a 13-0 lead late in the 2nd quarter.
Sam Houston got on the board with 1:32 remaining in the half on a 5-yard pass from Shoemaker to Jequez Ezzard. Cameron Hearn missed the point after, and the Kats trailed at halftime for the first time all season down 13-6.
Both teams exchanged punts to start the 3rd quarter, but it was Zyon McCollum who intercepted a Self pass to end a 16-play 77-yard SFA drive at the SHSU 15. Three plays later, though, a bad snap that Shoemaker couldn’t corral resulted in a Sam Houston turnover and ultimately a 14-yard passing touchdown from Self to Lawton Rikel from 9 yards out.
Both teams exchanged punts again, but then the Sam Houston offense found a groove going 97 yards for a score capped by 26-yard touchdown pass from Shoemaker to Ife Adeyi on 4th-and-4--a play that would be reviewed and confirmed by instant replay.
Sam Houston’s defense dialed up the pressure on SFA deep in their own territory causing two Trae Self fumbles--one on 2nd down and the other on 3rd down--both of which were recovered by the Lumberjacks. Following a punt and shifty Jequez Ezzard return, the Kats had the ball back in SFA territory once again.
Shoemaker worked his way down the field through the air while runs from Ramon Jefferson (6 yards) and Noah Smith (7 yards) had the Kats in another 4th-and-4 situation from the SFA 8. Shoemaker was seemingly sacked for a loss to end the drive, but SFA’s BJ Thompson was flagged for a facemask penalty which moved the ball to SFA’s 4.
On the next play, Trapper Pannell punched it in from 4 yards out and freshman kicker Christian Pavon from Willis knocked the PAT through to give SHSU a 21-20 lead with just over 2:30 remaining in the game.
SFA moved the ball down to the Sam Houston 33 before a tackle for a loss of 1 yard backed them up to the 34. From there, Campos attempted a 51-yard field goal with 0:40 remaining in the contest but his attempt, while plenty long, missed wide right.
Sam Houston would run out the clock to preserve their undefeated record on the season and clinch a 10th consecutive victory over their arch-rival.
Without Schmid, Sam Houston was held to their lowest offensive output of the season by any number of statistical categories. 21 points are the fewest this season and the fewest since the playoff game against Monmouth in the spring season. The Kats were also held to 289 total yards and only 67 yards rushing--97 of those total yards came on one drive in the 4th quarter.
Defensively, the Kats dominated the line of scrimmage allowing 97 yards on the ground while Trae Self went 17-34 for 215 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception. The Sam Houston defense has yet to allow 100 total rushing yards against any opponent this season.
How it Happened
It was announced shortly before kickoff that starting quarterback Eric Schmid would not play in the game despite participating in pregame warmups--presumably a holdout due to concussion protocols. Perhaps even more damning was that starting kicker Seth Morgan wouldn’t play due to Covid-19 protocols. Morgan was crucial to Sam’s victory at Central Arkansas last week and has been perfect on the season for field goals.
Highly-touted sophomore transfer quarterback Keegan Shoemaker got the nod at quarterback and, at least early in the contest, it seemed as though the Kats wouldn’t miss many steps along the way.
As the first half wore on; however, timing miscues, miscommunications, penalties, and missed opportunities doomed the Sam Houston offense. After moving the ball effectively on their first drive, an illegal chop block penalty backed the Bearkats up and the drive stalled in SFA territory. SFA took their first possession of the game 63 yards before settling for a career-long 49-yard field goal from Chris Campos to take a 3-0 lead 3 minutes into the first half.
Sam Houston’s next two possessions ended on downs. Without Morgan, the Kats found themselves in no man’s land midway into SFA territory multiple times. SFA, on the other hand, returned the favor with a punt on one possession and turnover on downs of their own on another. On Sam Houston’s next possession, Keegan Shoemaker would be intercepted on a miscommunicated pass intended for Cody Chrest.
SFA would take the ball 43 yards on 5 plays culminating in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Trae Self to Xavier Gipson to take a 10-0 lead at the end of the 1st quarter. Both teams would exchange punts before Chris Campos would tack on another field goal from 25 yards to give SFA a 13-0 lead.
Sam Houston would finally get on the board with a 5-yard pass from Shoemaker to Ezzard to cap a 9-play 77-yard drive; however, backup kicker Cameron Hearn missed the extra point, and the Kats went into halftime down 13-6.
The second half started with both teams exchanging 3-and-outs. SFA, who started the second half with the ball, was dominated by the Sam Houston defensive front before punting while Sam’s 3-and-out was much uglier with Shoemaker taking two sacks and effectively losing any field position they gained from Jequez Ezzard’s electric punt return.
On SFA’s next possession, Zion McCollum intercepted Self’s attempt to set up a screen pass; however, 7 plays later, Sam Houston would give the ball back on a bad snap over the head of Shoemaker. The play ended at the SHSU 9 yard line where, one play later, Self would connect with Lawton Rikel for a 9-yard score to take a 20-6 lead and close out the 3rd quarter.
The Kats had some life with 9:08 remaining in the game, Shoemaker led the Kats 97 yards on 9 plays in only 4:00 with Shoemaker hitting Ife Adeyi from 26 yards on a 4th and 8 to put the Kats back on the board. Shoemaker hit Cody Chrest to convert the 2-point conversion attempt and cut the SFA lead down to 20-14 after Jequez Ezzard was held on the first 2-point attempt.
The Sam Houston defense rose to the occasion after SFA took their next possession at their own 9-yard line. One positive play by SFA was followed by consecutive fumbles by Self both recovered by the Lumberjacks. Jequez Ezzard’s punt return had the Kats in SFA territory at the SFA 38 to start their next drive trailing by six points.
From there, Shoemaker worked the ball down the field to Chandler Harvin on pickups of 7 and 16 yards bookending a run by Ramon Jefferson of 6 yards. The Kats managed to work down to the SFA 8, but facing a 4th-and-4, SFA’s BJ Thompson was flagged for a facemask attempting to tackle Shoemaker. One play later, Trapper Pannell powered his way into the end zone from 4 yards out, and Christian Pavon's PAT put Sam Houston up 21-20 with 2:37 remaining in the game.
SFA managed to move into game-winning field goal territory, but Campos’ 51-yard attempt missed wide right, and the Kats would run out the rest of the clock for the victory.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Good--Sam Houston’s defense kept them in the game. Yes, the defense gave up 20 points, but they weren’t exactly helped out much by the Sam offense. SHSU’s defense is still elite, but they rely on their offense to do something (anything) to take the pressure off. When the offense can’t generate points, the defense is in a massive hole. The defense played well enough to win the football game, but when you can’t get any points from your offense, it’s a tough place to play from.
Sam’s defensive stand to set up the winning touchdown drive was one of their best of the season, and they needed it in the worst way. Backed up to their own 9-yard line, the Kat defense forced two Trae Self fumbles on pressures--both recovered by the offense. Recover either one of those, and there’s a huge dagger late in the game.
Keegan Shoemaker’s play. Keegan Shoemaker was put in one of the most difficult situations he could have been as a quarterback. He came in as a backup, started in a rivalry game against a team hungry to knock off not only the #1 team in the country but their rivals, and hadn’t started a game since his freshman season at Lafayette. I thought Shoemaker played remarkably well and showed glimpses of his potential at the helm of the SHSU offense.
Shoemaker has the athleticism to play quarterback in the south but also has the arm strength and accuracy to play at the elite level of FCS football. Aside from his one interception, Shoemaker took care of the ball, executed the offense (no matter how poorly it was called at times), and managed to move the ball a cumulative 135 yards in Sam’s final two offensive possessions to win a game that most fans wrote off as a loss after the 3rd quarter.
Shoemaker’s throw to Jequez Ezzard up the left sideline on the 97-yard drive is a throw that only an experienced quarterback can make. Shoemaker, who started 11 of Lafayette’s 12 games in 2019, is no stranger to playing at the FCS level nor in big games. He’s a plenty capable quarterback, and if you give him a full offseason as QB1, the Kats will be in great shape.
Some argue that his passes didn’t have the “zip” on them that Schmid’s do, but I think that’s more of a continuity issue than a quarterback issue. Schmid can rifle passes into receivers and thread the needle in tight windows because he is confident in both his ability and the ability of his pass catcher. Shoemaker, in my opinion, will be able to do the same with some first-team reps.
The Bad--Ryan Carty’s Game Plan. With Eric Schmid out on presumed concussion protocols, KC Keeler went with backup Keegan Shoemaker. Early, Carty put the ball in Shoemaker’s hands with passes and the sophomore handled it well; however, Carty all but abandoned the running game with a stable of backs who have rushed for nearly 300 yards in each of their games this season. Additionally, with the Kats in scoring position early in the game and in 3rd-and-2, Carty opted to send Trapper Pannell in as quarterback who was unable to pick up the first down. On 4th down, the Kats turned it over on downs, killing an otherwise promising drive.
Additionally, Carty failed to give Shoemaker opportunities to succeed by opening up the playbook and leaning on the running game. In multiple short-yardage situations, Carty opted to hand the ball off instead of trying to spread the SFA defense laterally and try to turn corners to gain first-down yardage. A few holes opened late--the game-winning drive comes to mind--but Carty’s play calling was a little vanilla for a rivalry game.
There were also several scenarios where SFA clearly had personnel, packages, and schemes to stop the run and either Carty didn’t check out of those running plays or Shoemaker didn’t make adjustments at the line. If it’s Shoemaker, those are simply experience issues, if it’s Carty, that’s a whole different problem.
However… I’ll give credit where credit is due. Carty called the plays on the final two drives of the game that ultimately gave Sam Houston the win. Yes, Shoemaker, Ezzard, and Harvin among others made plays, but for the first time all game, Carty gave his players opportunities to make plays.
3rd Down Conversions. 3-13 on 3rd down isn’t going to cut it. This was a problem last week in Conway, but it was much worse this week. One of the biggest 3rd down conversions came on Shoemaker’s completion to Ezzard for 45 yards early in the 4th quarter, but for the most part, the Kat offense was in 3rd-and-long all game--largely due to SFA’s defense but also due to playcalling.
Hopefully, we’re not headed back for another 3rd-and-Longo season. (We’re not.)
The Ugly--Officiating. I’m not going to harp on the officiating, and it’s a long way from being the reason the Kats found themselves in a 20-6 hole, but early in the game, the officials missed some pretty blatant calls--a missed pass interference on Ife Adeyi, a facemask on Cody Chrest, and the horrible roughing the passer penalty in the second half made a bad situation worse.
The bottom line is that great football teams have to overcome penalties, conditions, and injuries to win games and championships. A little magic helps, too.
Stock Movements: Buy, Sell, or Hold
Stock Up--Stephen F. Austin’s football program. If there were ever any doubts about whether or not Colby Carthel’s squad had turned the corner, Saturday may have been the last bend that straightens out SFA’s football program. I, along with most of the Sam Houston fanbase, looked at SFA’s schedule, results, and performances this season and assumed that due to a weak schedule that the Lumberjacks were pretenders. After seeing them fly around defensively against SHSU’s offense (sans-Schmid) and move the ball relatively effectively against Sam’s defense, I’m a believer in what Carthel is cooking up in Nacogdoches.
SFA is in control of their own destiny when it comes to the FCS playoffs. Win out, and the Jacks likely make the playoffs. It won’t be easy as SFA still has UCA and Jacksonville State on the docket and both squads will be playing for an outside shot at a playoff spot, but if SFA plays how they did against Sam, there won’t be much stopping them.
Position Update: As much as it pains me to say, I’d buy this SFA team, but I sure don’t want to see them later in the playoffs.
Unchanged--Sam’s fans in the stands. I know KC Keeler made comments in his postgame press conference about Sam’s fans not knowing when to cheer or be quiet, but from my seat on my couch in Stephenville, the fan noise seemed mostly appropriate. It’s also insanely difficult to know what to do when you’re a casual fan especially when the opponent’s fans are in the same building.
It still baffles me that the athletic department doesn’t put together a 2 minute video to show before every home game on how and when to cheer. Years ago, the Houston Texans showed a Fan 101 video before every single home game. Yes, even the week 16 game where fans had been to 7 previous games! It’s not rocket science, but it needs to be addressed. KCK nailed this one in his presser.
Position Update: Buy for attendance and being loud, Sell for fan IQ.
Stock Down--Ryan Carty. On Sam’s first offensive possession of the game, it seemed as though Carty had a plan to keep the ball in Keegan Shoemaker’s hands and let him settle into the game as a passer while opening up the offense without losing a step.
Quickly; however, we saw Carty seemingly abandon the running game and make some of the frustrating playcalling decisions we’ve come accustomed to as fans--Trapper Pannell QB draws, the weird swinging gate formation, and the swing pass that I think was intended to set up a throwback pass to Shoemaker in the 2nd half.
To make matters worse, when SFA stacked the box with 7 or 8 defenders, Carty insisted on running Ramon Jefferson or Zach Hrbacek into a wall. The running game was virtually non-existent after being the staple of Sam’s offense over the first 3 games, yet Carty wouldn’t make adjustments to that aspect of his game plan when SFA clearly was selling out to stop the run and force a backup quarterback to make plays. You simply can’t put a backup quarterback consistently behind the sticks in 2nd and 3rd-and-long situations and expect him to get the offense out of those situations.
Position Update: Hold. Carty is a good offensive coordinator, but he tries to get way too cute with his play calling and it’s been his hallmark during his tenure at SHSU. What’s wrong with ditching the garbage gimmicky formations and not wasting plays on Trapper Pannell draws?
Sam Houston won a tough game against a very talented and well-coached SFA squad. Stephen F. came out for 3 quarters and played with intensity, focus, and determination to knock off the #1 team in the nation; however, KCK’s calm, cool, and collected attitude likely kept Sam in the game late and may have propelled the Kats to victory.
By all accounts, SFA had that game won. SHSU, even with a capable backup quarterback, played pretty poorly on the offensive side of the ball in almost every capacity--play calling, offensive line, and execution--but managed to put together nine minutes of football to close out the game and get a victory. If the Kats manage to win out, earn a top two seed in the playoffs, and host playoff games, we’ll look back to this as a signature win that made the difference in seeding.
Last week, in my Look Ahead to this game, I fully expected to see Sam come out as two score favorites (they were 14-point favorites at kickoff), and I didn’t think SFA was going to be as competitive as they were yesterday. I was wrong on that account, and I’ll eat my crow.
SFA is a talented squad that should make the playoffs and, as I said earlier, they are in control of their own destiny. One question for both squads going into next week’s games is if they can put the emotions behind them from this rivalry game and get back to their foundations.
For SFA, they’ll hit the road to take on a desperate Jacksonville State squad. Jacksonville State will be fighting for their season and any hopes for a playoff spot after losing to Kennesaw State yesterday. SFA will need to bring their game as Jacksonville State has some talent, but may not be a talented team.
A Look Ahead
Sam Houston gets a pseudo-break in their schedule as they welcome Lamar to Bowers next Saturday for an afternoon kickoff. The Kats blasted Lamar in the spring season 62-7 on March 20th, but Lamar has won 2 of their last 3 contests against Sam Houston.
Lamar will bring a run-heavy attack to Bowers under second-year head coach Blane Morgan. Morgan’s Cardinals will come into the game following a bye week after losing 56-0 at home to Abilene Christian on September 25th. Lamar’s official record is 1-2; however, they have played 4 games total including a non-NCAA countable game against North American University to open the season. In their 3 countable games, the Cardinals have been held scoreless twice (at UTSA and at home vs. ACU) while defeating Northern Colorado (2-3) on the road 17-10.
Lamar may have an advantage coming off of their bye week with Sam Houston coming off of an emotional win against their rival, but I expect KC Keeler to get the Kats re-focused to take care of business at Bowers before Sam Houston has their second bye week prior to the Jacksonville State game. Eric Schmid, who participated in pregame warmups, should be back at the helm of the Bearkat offense and give SHSU a needed field general.