Updated: Sep 27, 2021
CONWAY, Arkansas -- For the first time this season, Sam Houston had to take a punch, settle down, and punch back. The Kats (3-0, 1-0 AQ7) outlasted a furious comeback by Central Arkansas (1-3, 0-1 AQ7) after nearly squandering a massive first half lead.
Eric Schmid took advantage of the “Get Better Week” by throwing for four touchdown passes--two each to Jequez Ezzard and Cody Chrest--in the first half before the UCA defense clamped down on the Kat offense in the second half. On a sunny and crisp day at UCA’s Estes Stadium, it was the Bearkats who made almost everything look sharp.
With the Kats up 28-7 with less than 3:00 remaining in the half, often-picked-on cornerback Jaylen Thomas intercepted a Braylin Smith pass deep in UCA territory. After getting the ball down to near the goal line, the Kats settled for a 22-yard Seth Morgan field goal to go up 31-7 with 2:48 remaining in the half.
Central Arkansas, however, would score 21 unanswered points through the closing of the first half and 3rd quarter to cut the Sam Houston lead to 31-28 entering the 4th quarter. It was the first time all season the Kats had been outscored in the 3rd quarter of a contest as UCA managed 14 points to Sam’s goose egg. UCA was aided in their 3rd stanza by penalties and good field position set up by a Noah Smith fumble midway through the 3rd.
Sam would go on a 14-0 run themselves with two Seth Morgan field goals and a rushing touchdown from Ramon Jefferson and two-point conversion pass from Schmid to Jacob Kainer to put the game mostly out of reach at 45-28 with 3:54 remaining in the game.
A Breylin Smith pass was intercepted deep in Sam Houston territory allowing the offense to grind out a few more ticks off the clock, but ultimately resulted in excellent field position for the Bears who capitalized on their next offensive play following Matt McRobert’s punt. Smith hit Tyler Hudson for 34 yards to narrow the gap and give the game its final margin of 45-35. Jequez Ezzard recovered UCA’s onside kick attempt, and the offense lined up in the victory formation to close out the contest.
Eric Schmid finished 19 for 37 for 283 yards and four touchdowns and ran the ball for another 48 yards--almost all of his work came in the first half. Ramon Jefferson again eclipsed the 100-yard mark hitting 104 yards on 22 carries with his sole touchdown coming in the 4th quarter. The Sam Houston defense again stuffed the run allowing only 38 yards from scrimmage against the Bears and solidifying their place as one of the best run-stopping corps in the nation. Sam Houston also managed 4 sacks on UCA’s quarterback Smith to go with 8 total tackles for loss.
Sam Houston will now turn their attention to the annual Battle of the Piney Woods against arch-rival Stephen F. Austin at NRG Stadium next Saturday while Central Arkansas will look to get back on track with a road contest at Abilene Christian.
How it Happened
Sam Houston scored touchdowns on four of their first five offensive possessions of the game and jumped all over Central Arkansas early in the contest. One question that lingered from the Kats’ first two games was whether the offense could get going and be explosive early rather than doing so late in the game. That question was answered almost immediately.
Schmid hit Jequez Ezzard down the right sideline for 45 yards with 11:42 left in the first quarter. He then hit Cody Chrest for 3 yards, Ezzard again for 5, and Chrest for 2--all coming with 8:48 remaining in the first half. Schmid’s first touchdown pass to Ezzard was historic as it moved him out of a 3-way tie for 3rd and into sole possession of 3rd place in career touchdown passes. That touchdown launched Schmid past Bearkat greats Dustin Long and Jared Johnson who finished their careers with 39 touchdown tosses apiece. Schmid’s performance also moved him into 4th all-time in career passing yards.
The Kats managed to pressure UCA’s quarterback Breylin Smith forcing him into difficult throws, sacking him four times, and intercepting him twice. Both interceptions--by cornerback Jaylen Thomas--came late in their respective halves and proved valuable as they effectively took the dangerous Bear’s offense off of the field.
From the 2:48 mark in the first half through most of the 3rd quarter, it was all Central Arkansas. Breylin Smith hit Tyler Hudson with :09 remaining in the first half to score a critical touchdown and take the Bears into halftime down 31-14 instead of 31-7 or 31-10. UCA would score two more touchdowns in the 3rd quarter--one a pass from Smith to Lujuan Winningham and another a weak-side rush from freshman runningback Darius Hale to cut the lead to 31-28 with just under 5:00 remaining in the 3rd quarter.
Ultimately, Sam Houston would gather themselves over the remainder of the 3rd quarter and all of the 4th by scoring 14 unanswered points of their own to stretch the lead out to 45-28. A 70-yard drive spanning 5:52 over the final minutes of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th quarters ended in a Seth Morgan 22-yard field goal with 11:11 remaining in the game.
Sam’s defense forced a 3-and-out on the next possession with UCA deep in their own territory. The Kats’ offense would take advantage of good field position with a 5-yard touchdown blast from Ramon Jefferson--his 4th touchdown rush of the season.
Another 3-and-out from the Bearkat defense resulted in yet another Seth Morgan field goal--this one from 32 yards--to cap a 7-play 31-yard drive and give the Kats a 45-28 lead with 3:54 remaining in the game.
The Kats would force Smith to throw his second interception of the game on the next possession while the offense, with their back against their own goal line, managed to stay out of safety territory, run some clock, and ultimately get a punt away with just over a minute remaining in the game. Smith would again hit Tyler Hudson from 34 yards out, but an onside kick attempt failed and the Kats were able to run out the remainder of the clock.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The Good--Sam Houston had to answer some questions during one of K.C. Keeler’s patented “Get Better Weeks”. The Kats started slow offensively in each of their first two wins while the defense had some holes in the secondary in both contests.
Offense Comes Alive. There aren’t any doubts about the potency of Sam Houston’s offense, but the troubling thing has been the offense’s inability to start fast enough to put teams in a bad position early. That wasn’t the case in Saturday’s win against UCA. The Kats started fast, scored 31 first half points, and did everything without a defensive touchdown for the first time all season. The offense was slowed down in the second half only mustering 14 second half points but was really never slowed down by UCA’s defense. The lone blemish of Saturday’s victory was a Noah Smith fumble on a screen play mid-way through the 3rd quarter that set up the Bears with good field position and ultimately a touchdown.
Another Rushing Defense Shutout. Sure, UCA scored one of their touchdowns during their 21-0 run on the ground, but for quite literally every other play of the game, UCA couldn’t run the ball. Sam’s defense gave up 38 yards on the ground forcing Breylin Smith to throw from virtually the onset of the game. Smith is a capable quarterback, but any QB in a hole as massive as he was in will force throws, and Jaylen Thomas was there (twice) to pick off Smith at critical points in the game.
Secondary Scheme Shows Signs of Life. I can tell you what the defensive game plan for the Kats will be the rest of the year: stop the run, limit the big plays over the top. This has been the formula all year long for Sam Houston, but the secondary hasn’t been able to execute. Saturday’s game against UCA showed that Clayton Carlin has a plan for this defense.
Yes, the Kats gave up 288 yards through the air. Yes, the Kats gave up 4 touchdown passes. And yes, the Kats let UCA back into the game through the 3rd quarter, but look deeper and you’ll see a couple of things that are crucial for this defense as the season wears on.
1) Smith’s 288 yards and 4 TDs came on 25 completions which translates to 11.5 yards per completion and only 6.9 yards per pass. That tells me that while Smith got his touches and Winningham and Hudson got their catches, the deep ball was virtually taken away by the SHSU secondary.
2) The secondary passed the eye test even if the statistics don’t indicate it. In the NAU game, receivers were running wild behind the Kats’ secondary, but that wasn’t the case in the win against UCA. For the most part, the Sam defensive secondary kept everything in front of them and picked off Smith two times--he averaged 2 INTs per game this season. When a team finds themselves down 31-7 in the first half, they are forced to air the ball out and UCA did.
Eric Schmid’s Ball Security. Schmid was exceptional especially in the first half as the Kats’ field general. Schmid had accounted for four turnovers through the first two games of the year, and Sam Houston fans knew that he had to play turnover-free football against quality opponents. Schmid did just that on Saturday by taking care of the ball, not throwing into traffic, and overthrowing many a play where there otherwise was nothing there.
Last Sunday, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson threw 4 interceptions, and head coach Robert Saleh said that Wilson needs to learn to be “boring”. The same goes for Eric Schmid. Some of the throws Schmid made are some of the best you’ll see in FCS football--the dime to Cody Chrest and the go route to Ife Adeyi come to mind. Schmid can make some incredible plays, but he has to know when to throw the ball away to simply turn the down marker instead of forcing something into coverage.
He did all of those things on Saturday evening and will need to continue to do it throughout the rest of the season.
The Bad--Red Zone Offense. There wasn’t a whole lot of bad or ugly this week, but one thing I’ll point out about this week’s performance is the Kats’ red zone offense. Sam Houston was a perfect 7 for 7 inside the red zone but squandered some golden opportunities to score touchdowns. The Kats made it down inside the Central Arkansas 5 yard line twice before having to settle for two PAT-length field goals. Another trip stalled at the UCA 15 resulting in another field goal.
On one of those red zone trips, the Kats had first and goal from the one-yard line only to kick a field goal while the other was first and goal from the five-yard line. Field goals are fine and points are great, but Ryan Carty needs to dial up plays that will get the ball into the end zone in these extremely short-yardage situations. Those two series effectively took 8 total points off the board and very well would have put the game way out of UCA’s reach.
Granted, UCA’s defense is the best the Kats have seen all year, but there’s no excuse for not scoring touchdowns from inside the 5.
The Ugly--The Point Spread. I saw two different point spreads coming into Saturday’s game. One, the ESPN line had the Kats as -10 while the MGM sportsbook had the Kats at -11.5. If you took either one of those lines, you were likely highly upset when Tyler Hudson scored with about a minute left to either push or cover.
Vegas had this one about right, but that’s just a bad beat for a better!
Stock Movement: Buy, Sell, or Hold
Stock Up--Eric Schmid as Field General. One thing we learned during the Brian Bell era of Sam Houston football is how critical it is to have a signal-caller command the field, take care of the ball, and execute the offensive game plan. Schmid has always been good at this, but turnovers have plagued what have otherwise been great performances as a game manager. Saturday, Schmid showed what he’s capable of--4 TDs in the first half and overall command of the offense.
By and large, UCA didn’t have an answer for Schmid at least in the first half, and Schmid didn’t turn the ball over for the first time all season.
Position update: Hold. Let’s see him do it again at NRG next week.
Stock Up--The Ezzard - Chrest Duo. Breylin Smith has arguably two of the best receivers in the FCS in Lujuan Winningham and Tyler Hudson, but Cody Chrest has turned into a Wes Welker-like nightmare for opposing defenses. Ezzard is obviously a playmaker, but Chrest has turned into a more than capable weapon in the Sam Houston passing game starting in Week 1 against Northern Arizona where he went for over 100 yards. Chrest and Ezzard combined for 99 yards receiving and all four of the passing game’s first half touchdowns--two each.
Ife Adeyi actually led the SHSU receivers with 4 catches for 80 yards and a long of 56. The stable of skill players for Sam Houston on offense is scary, and opposing defenses will have to pick and choose what to scheme against.
Position update: Strong buy. I expect these two along with Adeyi and Chandler Harvin to wreak havoc on opposing secondaries as long as they stay healthy.
Stock Down--The WAC-ASUN Challenge. Unfortunately for Sam Houston fans, the WAC-ASUN Challenge is proving to be more of a letdown from a strength of schedule standpoint. I think that UCA is still capable of earning a playoff spot, but they’ll obviously have to run the table at 1-3 and/or hope for Sam Houston and the top half of the WAC-ASUN stumbles down the stretch.
Jacksonville State is an anomaly at this point. I wasn’t convinced that the win at Florida State was all it was cracked up to be. Florida State is a disaster, and the Seminoles (0-4) will probably only win 2 or 3 games all year. Jacksonville State, on the other hand, fell to 2-2 after losing to Tennessee-Martin at home on Saturday. Tennessee-Martin came into the game with wins over Northwestern Louisiana and Samford--not exactly sterling victories.
Not that the Kats are invincible, but after taking care of UCA, I don’t see much standing in the way of a perfect regular season for Sam Houston. At this point, next week’s game against SFA and a season finale against Abilene Christian look to be the stiffest tests remaining for the Bearkats. Yes, Jacksonville State is still on the docket, but the Gamecocks better bring a defense when they visit Bowers (following another SHSU bye week).
Position update: Hold for now, but get ready to dump this one in a few weeks.
Sam Houston did what they were supposed to on Saturday in disposing of a pretty darn good UCA team that I think still has an outside shot at a playoff spot if they can run the table the rest of the season. The offensive explosion to start the game was more than enough, but the defense needs to stiffen some. To the D’s credit, UCA was aided considerably by a targeting call (only called after a review) and two questionable PI calls on what were otherwise well-defended plays.
I expect to see the all-gas, no brakes style of play from these Kats to continue into the next bye week.
A Look Ahead
The Battle of the Piney Woods is now upon us, and Sam Houston will look to take their 10th consecutive win over arch-rival SFA. Sam Houston is 10-1 against SFA since the game was moved to NRG Stadium having lost the first affair in 2010. Recent history also favors Sam as the Kats have only lost 3 games to the Jacks this century (2003, 2009, and 2010).
SFA will enter the contest 3-1 after a season-opening win against Tarleton at home in the return of WAC football, a narrow loss to Texas Tech on the road, and victories over FCS cellar-dweller Mississippi Valley State and first-year Division II school Lincoln University (CA).
It’s hard as a Bearkat fan not to belittle SFA’s football program, but all three of SFA’s wins have come against far from elite competition. Tarleton’s defense is abysmal, MVSU is MVSU, and a D-II win may as well be a scrimmage. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Kats open as 2 touchdown favorites, and 3 touchdown favorites isn’t out of the question.
I think that Sam Houston will come out in this one hungry to hang 60 on the Lumberjacks, but anything goes in a rivalry game. I think that Trae Self is a capable quarterback and Xavier Gipson is a dangerous threat at receiver, but if the Kats eliminate the SFA run game early, I don’t think Self has the horses or the talent to keep it close.
That game is scheduled for a 4:00 kickoff at NRG Stadium in Houston.