Match Up: Dixie State (0-8, 0-2 WAC) at #1 Sam Houston (7-0, 4-0 AQ7, 3-0 WAC)
Game Information: 12:00 ESPN+, Bowers Stadium, Huntsville, Texas
Weather Forecast: Sunny, 68 Degrees, Light Winds N-NE
With a week full of conference realignment speculation, rumors, “reports”, and “sources”, Sam Houston fans will be welcome to know that come Saturday at 12:00, there will yet again be football played at Bowers Stadium. No matter what side of the realignment campaign you stand on, one thing is for sure: when a foot hits the ball on Saturday at high noon, we can all once again be fans of the same team.
Going into the week, Sam Houston’s matchup against 0-8 Dixie State was not exactly high on Kat fans’ radars, but following a week of polarizing realignment talk, Saturday’s game will be a welcome reprieve to all of the media and fan speculation about Sam’s potential move to Conference USA. That said, here’s a look at Saturday’s opponent Dixie State.
Nightmare of a Schedule
Hailing from St. George, Utah and nowhere remotely close to “Dixie”, the Dixie State Trailblazers are in the midst of their second transitional season into the FCS as one of the founding WAC football members along with Tarleton State. Dixie, although 0-8 and 0-2 in WAC play, have played arguably the most difficult schedule in the FCS with no signs of things letting up anytime soon.
To date, Dixie has played five teams ranked in the FCS top 25 and will play two more (including Sam Houston) to round out the season. Dixie has played games against #7 UC Davis (Lost 60-27), #10 Montana (Lost 31-14), #12 South Dakota State (Lost 55-7), #22 Sacramento State (Lost 19-7), and #25 Weber State (Lost 41-3). The Blazers will finish their season with Saturday’s matchup against #1 Sam Houston, against Division II Fort Lewis, and current #20-ranked Missouri State.
Dixie’s last 3 contests have come against unranked teams Tarleton (Lost 41-20), Stephen F. Austin (Lost 37-20), and Delaware (Lost 17-10). By the season’s end, Dixie will have played both the FCS National Champion Sam Houston, FCS National Runner-Up SDSU, and FCS Semi-Finalist Delaware all in the same season.
Scouting the Trailblazers
Dixie State, while playing a gauntlet of a schedule, may very well be in a position for future success as they make their first-ever trip to Huntsville for their first-ever meeting with the Bearkats. The Blazers’ current two-deep shows 15 of their 22 starters as either freshman or sophomores and all six of their special teams starters as freshman or sophomores.
While Dixie brings in possibly one of the youngest FCS rosters into Bowers on Saturday, they’ve shown competitiveness and improvement over the course of this season. Dixie hung tough with Montana, Sacramento State, and Delaware before ultimately getting out-manned in those games.
Last week’s game against Delaware was a tale of two halves as the Blazers surrendered 17 first half points and over 300 yards to the Blue Hens, but shut out the Hens and allowed only 68 total yards in the second half. Despite making a defensive stand in the second half, the Trailblazers offense could only muster a field goal in the final 30 minutes which were ultimately the final points of the game from either team.
Offensive Players to Watch
With all of the youth on Dixie State’s roster, it will likely be senior running back Drew Kannely-Robles who will look to be the offensive spark for the visiting squad. Kannely-Robles is the team’s leading rusher and most consistent offensive performer having rushed 103 times for 458 yards (4.4 YPA) and 3 touchdowns.
He has had breakout games in each of Dixie’s last two rushing 24 times for 183 yards (7.6 YPA) and a touchdown against SFA and catching 6 passes for 112 yards (18.6 YPC) against Delaware. With Kannely-Robles’ performance against Delaware, he also became the team’s leading receiver having caught 27 passes for 275 yards on the season.
The rest of Dixie’s receiving corps is almost in a dead heat with four receivers, Keith Davis, Rickie Johnson, Jalen Powell, and Michael Moton, all having caught passes and totalling around 250 yards for the season. Moton, statistically speaking, could be the most explosive player on Dixie’s offense having caught only 14 passes but gaining 222 yards (15.9 YPC) and catching 2 TD passes.
Dixie’s quarterbacks have been a revolving door with Kody Wilstead, Kenyon Obland, and Koby Tracy all seeing action for the Blazers. Obland and Tracy have gotten the majority of the snaps in the latter weeks of the season, combining for 1,716 yards (878, 883 respectively) and 8 TDs (5, 3) this season. Tracy has been the starter in Dixie’s last two contests and is listed as the starter after throwing for a career-high 314 yard on 25-39 passing with one TD and one INT in his second collegiate start at Delaware.
All of this culminates in an offense that averages 13.5 points per game, 315.5 yards per game (70.8 rushing, 244.8 passing). The Blazers will face one of the best rushing defenses in the nation as Sam Houston currently ranks #6 in rushing defense (76.4 YPG) and #23 in total defense (323.6 YPG). The achilles heel of the Kat D; however, has continued to be its passing defense where Sam Houston ranks 94th nationally giving up 247.1 yards per game.
Defensive Players to Watch
Dixie’s defense gives up an average of 37.6 points, 218 yards on the ground, and 231.9 through the air. Expect for Sam Houston to again keep the ball on the ground with a heavy dose of Ramon Jefferson, Noah Smith, and Eric Schmid.
Dixie’s defense is anchored by freshman DB Tyrell Grayson. Grayson was WAC Defensive Player of the Week after a 14 tackle (8 solo) game where he forced a fumble at Montana. Grayson has forced 3 fumbles on the season picking up his 3rd last week against Delaware and would rank 12th nationally at the FCS level with 82 tackles, while his team-high 64 solo tackles would tie him for the FCS national lead.
Joining Grayson on the defensive side is junior linebacker Malaki Malaki who had a 17 tackle day against Montana and currently stands as the team’s second-leading tackler with 77 (46 solo). Malaki also has 7 TFLs for 25 yards and 2 sacks on the year.
Despite giving up big yards defensively, the Trailblazers have played reasonably well in their contests against Montana, Sacramento State, and Delaware by being disruptive, forcing turnovers, and generally limiting those opponents early in games thereby giving them opportunities to hang around. Unfortunately, the offensive production hasn’t been up to speed of the defense’s competitiveness.
Sam Houston’s offense has been notoriously slow to start in the Ryan Carty era, but this is one of the games where if the offense starts early, gets a substantial lead, and forces Dixie’s young quarterback to throw, it could create turnover opportunities for the Kats’ defense. Look for Sam Houston to keep the ball on the ground with Jefferson and Noah Smith while supplementing with some pass plays to Smith out of the backfield.
Defensively, the Kats are looking to rebound and find answers for a game one week ago where Tarleton’s Steven Duncan torched the Sam Houston secondary for 400 yards and 4 touchdowns without throwing an interception. In KC Keeler’s weekly press conference, he mentioned that he implemented changes in how the secondary was practicing by effectively allowing them to practice on a longer length of the field. His observations were that practicing in close quarters and a short field was limiting the exposure the safeties were getting during practice reps to longer plays by the offense.
Another defensive question is whether or not Clayton Carlin will be with the team this week. Carlin’s absence undoubtedly contributed to the overall lack of adjustment on the defensive side of the ball.
This is one of those games where Sam Houston should--at least in theory--put this game away by halftime or early in the 3rd quarter, but history tells us that KCK-led teams have a tendency to play down to competition, make mistakes early, and keep starters on the field longer than they need to. I think this is the kind of game where Sam shows that they’re undoubtedly deserving of the #1 national ranking and puts the game away early with quick scores. Of course with distractions of Conference USA and FBS surrounding the team this week, how focused will they be on the task at hand?