Updated: Sep 7, 2021
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona--Sam Houston started its 2021 campaign just how it ended the spring--with a victory. The visiting Bearkats outgunned and, at times, outlasted a stubborn Northern Arizona squad in front of 8,564 fans in NAU’s Walkup Skydome by a margin of 42-16.
Sam Houston, the preseason FCS #1 ranked team, had its fair share of miscues and missed opportunities before turning the tide in the 3rd quarter and ultimately outmanning the Lumberjacks of NAU. The Kats also picked up their first true road victory in a dome with Thursday night's win.
While the final score would indicate a blowout, for much of the first half and beginning of the second, Northern Arizona simply wouldn’t go away and battled against one of the best complete units in the FCS. Sam Houston, anchored by All-World tough guy, junior quarterback Eric Schmid, put up plenty of points but also left plenty on the field. Sam’s defense gave up only 91 yards on the ground to NAU while tearing up the new turf at the Skydome themselves amassing 294 yards rushing.
Sam’s first offensive drive of the season ended just as its first drive did this spring--with an Eric Schmid fumble. NAU managed a first down but ultimately returned the possession to the Kats following a punt.
Schmid found Brennon Tibbs on a slant route for 41 yards for Sam Houston’s first points of the season midway through the first quarter. Both squads exchanged possessions to round out the first stanza before Schmid again connected with Jacob Kainer for a 7-yard touchdown strike to cap a 5-play 41-yard drive in only 1:31 to take a 14-0 lead.
From there, NAU gained momentum behind the arm and legs of backup quarterback Jeff Widener after starter Keondre Wudtee was injured in the early goings. The Jacks were able to move the ball 63 yards before Luis Aguilar missed a 29-yard field goal from the right hash.
Sam Houston capitalized on the ensuing possession going 80 yards culminating in a 22-yard catch and run by Noah Smith from Schmid--his third touchdown pass of the half. NAU would answer on their next possession going 75 yards in 13 plays on the arm of Widener who hit Brandon Porter from 4 yards out to cap the drive.
The Kats dodged a bullet at the end of the second quarter after driving into NAU territory. Ramon Jefferson’s carry on 4th-and-1 was sniffed out by NAU’s defense, and Widener promptly went to work with 30 seconds remaining in the half and hopes of getting into field goal range. After three consecutive pass completions, NAU settled for a 53-yard Aguilar field goal which failed to split the uprights.
SHSU would take a 21-7 lead into the locker room at the break.
After deferring their choice to the second half, NAU took the ball to begin the second half and quickly got to work moving the ball against the porous secondary of Sam Houston. Pass plays of 11 and 14 yards bookended a 13-yard rush and 10-yard holding penalty on Jaylen Thomas had the Jacks again deep in Sam territory, but a holding penalty and an incomplete pass stalled the NAU drive and the Lumberjacks settled for a 30-yard Aguilar field goal to cut the Sam Houston lead to 21-10.
On Sam’s first play of its next possession, Schmid hit Cody Chrest streaking from left to right for 45 yards down to the NAU 30. A holding penalty against the Jacks followed by a 2-yard rush by freshman Zach Hrbacek had the Kats down to the NAU 17, but a difficult-to-catch dropped pass by Ife Adeyi in the endzone and a false start penalty put the Sam Houston offense in a 3rd-and-13 situation. Schmid rolled to his left on third down before throwing an ill-advised ball into double coverage which was intercepted by NAU defensive back Colby Humphrey. Humphrey returned the INT out to the NAU 30 and a personal foul penalty against the Bearkats moved the ball out to the 45 before NAU’s offense took its next snap.
The tide would turn in favor of the Bearkats.
Threatening near the Sam Houston red zone, a hurried Widener was intercepted by linebacker Trevor Williams who jumped the route and made an acrobatic adjustment before taking the pick 75-yards to the house. Williams’ interception and Seth Morgan’s PAT put the Kats up 28-10 with 5:09 remaining in the 3rd quarter.
Three plays into NAU’s ensuing possession and the Kats again intercepted Widener. This time, it was Ysidro Mascorro getting in on the action. The Kat offense wasted little time moving the ball 35 yards capping the drive with a Noah Smith touchdown rush from 7 yards out.
NAU would add another touchdown towards the end of the third quarter, but Ramon Jefferson took a handoff on the final play of the third quarter 45 yards to set up Sam’s final scoring drive with Jefferson punching it in from 9 yards out to punctuate a 5-play 75-yard drive with 13:01 still left in the contest.
From there, both teams would exchange possessions, but the final result was already well in hand and Sam picked up its first win of the 2021 season in fashion.
While the overall performance may have not passed the eye test to Bearkat fans, the statistics certainly should. Sam amassed 562 yards on offense while averaging 7.6 yards per play while the defense continued to stuff the running game giving up fewer than 100 yards on the ground and continuing its quest to limit individual 100-yard rushers.
The Kats return home to Huntsville for a 6:00 kickoff against Southeast Missouri on September 11th.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Good--Sam’s offense clicked on [most] cylinders amassing nearly 600 yards of offense and averaging 7.6 yards per play. Most football teams won’t lose many games with that type of offensive performance. The defense continued to keep opponents’ rushing attacks in check while patiently waiting for turnovers to steal momentum from their opposition. Back-to-back interceptions on consecutive series turned the tide of the football game resulting in 14 Bearkat points.
The Kats left points on the field with an interception, fumble, and two poorly executed 4th down attempts, but still mustered 35 offensive points and 7 on the defensive side. If 35 points is a pedestrian game for this offense this season, then expect some explosive scores against lesser opponents.
Finally, KC Keeler always coach-speaks his way through "playing clean", but this was one of the best opening performances of a Sam Houston squad under KCK's leadership--few penalties, some correctable mistakes, and overall superior performance.
The Bad--It’s hard to categorize the wide receiver play of Sam Houston in this opener. The Kats, with one of the deepest wideout corps in the FCS, was surprisingly lethargic and dropped countless very catchable passes.
Cody Chrest was the lone bright spot all game long as the sure-handed Harvard transfer caught 10 balls for 106 yards and an impressive 70 yards-after-catch redeeming his performance from Frisco where he dropped several passes on the soggy natural grass at Toyota Stadium. Ife Adeyi, another normally sure-handed pass-catcher dropped several of his targets including an admittedly difficult catch near the left pylon in the 3rd quarter that could have put the game mostly out of reach for NAU.
For all of the dropped passes, this game was a fluke for Sam’s receivers. Sam’s WRs will be fine this season. They’ll get in a rhythm, produce, and make big plays, so don’t look too much into this.
Two poorly executed 4th-and-1 plays turned the ball over on downs and may very well have taken points off the board. This is a recurring theme for Ryan Carty’s offenses--especially considering how laterally slow NAU’s defense seemed throughout the game.
The Ugly--You can’t fault Eric Schmid for his never-give-up heart and play on the field, but his ill-advised pass on 3rd-and-13 deep in NAU territory in the third quarter is a ball that should never have been thrown. At the very least, you take a no-gain play or throw the ball away to give Seth Morgan a chance to kick a field goal. Granted, Trevor Williams returned the favor, but these types of mistakes against better teams will doom the Kats down the road or in heated one-score affairs. Schmid’s fumble on what was otherwise a first down-gaining run likely took points off the board on the opening possession.
The holes in the defensive secondary for Sam Houston are concerning. Anchored by the McCollum twins and up-and-comer Braiden Clopton, the secondary was porous as it has been historically. Sam's defensive backs consistently let NAU wide receivers get behind them, and with some better throws or against an elite FCS quarterback, several of those receivers are in the end zone and this game is much closer. These mistakes must be rectified between week 1 and week 2 or the Kats could be in for an upset loss during the regular season or an unceremonious exit from the playoffs at the hands of a James Madison or NDSU (with a quality quarterback).
The defensive secondary didn’t get a whole lot of help until late in the game when the Sam Houston pass rush finally got home and disrupted NAU’s Widener. To make up for the secondary’s lack, the defensive pass rush needs to up its game.
We can't entirely discount the fact that Sam made NAU one-dimensional by virtually eliminating the Jack's running game. That forced NAU to pass the ball and may have contributed to some of the holes and yardage given up by the SHSU secondary. At the college level, forcing a team to pass the ball when they can't run will give the defense opportunities to create turnovers as we saw Thursday night. Was the secondary's performance ugly? Yes, but with a grain of salt--the SHSU defense took away the ground game putting some additional pressure on the secondary.
Stock Up--Sam’s defensive line. This group anchored the defense and disrupted opponents for the entire spring season, and this game was no different--13 TFL and holding a team to less than 100 yards rushing and 2.6 yards-per-carry will put this team in the mix of any game.
Sam's rushing offense. The Kats are perceived throughout the country as a pass-happy offense, but as fans know, Sam Houston has devastated opponents on the ground over the years. Thursday's performance was an impressive ground attack with 294 rushing yards and an average of 7.9 yards per touch. Ramon Jefferson had himself a day with 143 yards on the ground on only 11 carries including a touchdown. Highly-recruited freshman Zach Hrbacek carried the ball 7 times for 65 yards including a long dash of 42 yards late in the game.
A healthy running game bodes well for these Kats late in the season when games are close, need to be put away, or weather is less-than-favorable. If the Kats hit the road to northern climates late in the season, then this bunch could be ready for another deep playoff run.
Unchanged--Eric Schmid. Schmid’s 21 for 37 isn’t beautiful, but 268 passing yards and 3 touchdowns in the first half aren’t bad at all. Schmid didn’t get any help from his receivers with at least 5 dropped passes from otherwise sure-handed ball catchers. He could have easily had 25+ completions and over 300 yards and potentially a fourth touchdown and no interceptions. 27 for 37, 300+ yards, 4 TDs, and no INTs puts him in a different conversation for the Walter Payton Award. His performance against NAU doesn’t hurt, but it’s far from elite.
Stock Down--Sam Houston's helmet decals. Many Kat fans loved the concept but weren't crazy about the execution. The Sammy head is a great idea but needs to either be on a white helmet or bordered with thick white to prevent the logo from washing out on the orange background.
Northern Arizona's squiggle pants. Sam Houston fans painfully remember the lean years of the dreaded "diaper pants" from the late Flanders-Bell-Sincere era. Much like Sam's Sammy Head decal, NAU's "mountains" on the pants were a great touch that just wasn't executed very well.
Jequez Ezzard. Ezzard was lightning in a bottle last season and everyone in the nation took notice. Whether NAU shut down Ezzard or he just didn’t have his best game executing on routes is anyone’s guess, but Ezzard was a non-factor in the season opener. I point to a particular play where Schmid threw a lame-duck ball to Ezzard in the flat early in the game--Ezzard seemed disinterested despite getting his hands on the ball. I don’t expect a receiver to catch that ball, but there was something lacking in that effort that isn’t typical of a highlight reel playmaker like Ezzard.
There’s no doubt that defensive secondaries will scheme against Ezzard all season, but it may be up to him to create plays more than it was in the spring season. Ezzard will get his touches, and he’ll have a fine season, but it won’t come easily. If there’s a silver lining to Ezzard’s overall lack in this game, it’s that things opened up for the likes of Cody Chrest and Brennon Tibbs who combined for 10 catches, 170 yards, and a touchdown. Not that Ezzard’s role in the offense will be diminished--it most certainly won’t--but he may find himself as more of an offensive decoy and special teams player than he did a season ago.
One thing I wonder is if Jequez Ezzard has his eyes set on the League more than on this FCS season. Kat fans undoubtedly remember all-time great receiver Nathan Stewart who was a human highlight reel himself from 2016-2019 but faded away from the program during his senior year after banner years over 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first three seasons. Can Ezzard either find his groove or settle for being a role player instead of a superstar when things aren't going his way? We'll see.
Overall, fans should be pleased with this performance. In years past, KC Keeler's squads have struggled in season openers with sloppy penalties and missed opportunities while leaving fans scratching their heads and biting their nails. This was not one of those head-scratching games. The Kats did what they were supposed to do against, what I think, could be a talented playoff-bubble NAU team. NAU has some horses and, in the Big Sky, could very well be a contender and earn a playoff spot with some signature wins.
A Look Ahead
The Kats will take on Southeast Missouri in their home opener on September 11th at Bowers Stadium. SEMO will come to Bowers 0-1 after losing to #7 Southern Illinois in a home contest 47-21. SEMO gave up 553 yards and 460 through the air including a 99-yard touchdown pass. The Redhawks will have to clean up penalties after they were flagged 15(!) times for 133 yards. Offensively, SEMO only mustered 243 total yards but managed 142 yards on the ground.
If Southeast Missouri is looking to run the ball on Sam Houston's defense, they may be in for a long day at Bowers. The question is, can SEMO clean up the penalties, establish the ground game, and take advantage of Sam Houston's secondary? The Kats should control this game and will be a nice measuring stick on improvement from the NAU contest.