By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
(Head coach Willie Fritz)
How were the Bearkats viewed in the preseason?
I did the Southland Conference preview for College Sporting News and thought that SHSU would finish fifth in the conference behind McNeese State, Northwestern State, the 2010 champion Stephen F. Austin, and Central Arkansas. I did feel, however, that the Bearkats could be a dark horse in the race after finishing 2010 at 6-5 and winning their final six of nine games.
The preseason polls by the Southland Conference coaches had SHSU at the #4 position and the league's sports information directors had the Bearkats at the #5 position. The young team was ranked 34th nationally in the consolidated polls.
How did the Bearkats finish undefeated within the 2011 regular season?
(Tim Flanders, Richard Sincere and Darnell Taylor)
The highlight of the regular season had to be their win over Football Bowl Division foe New Mexico. The Bearkats needed overtime to defeat the Lobos in Albuquerque by a score of 48-45.
That was not the only highlight but it was the closest regular season win.
The next closest regular season victory ironically was against another Missouri Valley Football Conference team in Western Illinois to begin the season. SHSU defeated WIU 20-6. Their championship game opponent in NDSU also hails from the MVFC.
Next in closest margin was a 22-7 win over FBS transitioning Texas-San Antonio.
The tightest Southland win for the Bearkats was against fellow playoff participant Central Arkansas by a score of 31-10.
For the season, SHSU remained relatively healthy and showed with the margin of victories as can be seen in the scores above.
Offensively, the Bearkats used the running from record setting back Tim Flanders. Flanders set conference records with 22 touchdowns and 132 points this season. His 20 rushing touchdowns tied former Bearkat Luther Turner, who ran for 20 scores in 1987. The sophomore averaged 103.0 rushing yards per game after running for 100 yards or more six times this season and totaled 1,094 rushing yards. Flanders was named the SLC Player of the Year.
The Bearkats also had wide receiver Richard Sincere named as the league’s offensive player of the year, safety Darnell Taylor was named the defensive player of the year, and head coach Willie Fritz was named the Southland coach of the year.
Sincere, who also has been under center in the "Wild Bearkat" formation, finished second on the team behind Flanders in rushing with an average of 66.5 yards per game. That was the third best average in the conference. He scored nine touchdowns and totaled 732 yards on 93 carries. He ran for 100 yards or more four times.
When Sincere is not under center, second team SLC selection sophomore Brian Bell has been the quarterback. Bell did a good job of running the multi-option attack of SHSU while ranking No. 2 in the FCS in passing efficiency. He has completed 131 of 212 passes for 1,954 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Taylor captained a Sam Houston defense that led the nation against the run, limiting opponents to only 59 rushing yards per game in the regular season. It also has the nation's top scoring defense, allowing only 12.64 points per game. Taylor led the Bearkats with 89 tackles and has six tackles for loss and three sacks.
How did Sam Houston State win its opening round playoff game?
Following a bye, the top seeded Bearkats faced Big South champion Stony Brook, who had defeated Northeast Conference champion Albany in the first round game.
The 34-27 win over the Seawolves gave doubters of the Bearkats reason to continue their underestimation.
The Bearkats scored on a Flanders seven yard run to break the 27-27 tie with just 1:01 left in the game.
Flanders rushed 21 times for 102 yards. The final drive took 5:32 off the clock. Stony Brook threw four incomplete passes to end the game.
Quarterback Brian Bell completed 11 of 20 passes for 161 yards including an 80-yard touchdown pass to Trey Diller that game the Bearkats a 27-20 lead with 8:45 to play.
A tough Seawolves defense limited the Bearkats to its third lowest offensive output of the season as the Bearkats rushed for 182 yards and passed for 161, totaling 343 yards.
Sam Houston State advanced to the quarterfinals to face Montana State.
How did the Bearkats beat Montana State in the quarterfinal round?
SHSU used wide receivers Sincere and Torrance Williams and quarterback Bell to dispatch the doubters with a 49-13 win over the co-Big Sky champion Bobcats.
Down 3-0 in the first quarter, the Bearkats stormed back for 14 points in the second period and 21 in the third quarter. SHSU racked up 428 yards rushing and 501 total yards.
While the offense was having a field day for the Bearkats, their defense limited Montana State to just 77 yards rushing, recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass and blocked a field goal. Montana State totaled 349 yards offense.
Sincere rushed 11 times for 160 yards including a long run of 52 yards. He also caught two passes for 43 yards including a 40-yard scoring pass from Bell.
Bell, who completed 5 of 12 passes for 73 yards, opened Sam Houston's scoring with an 11-yard pass to Grant Merritt with 4:50 to play in the first quarter.
Taylor and fellow defensive back Kenneth Jenkins led the Bearkat defense with 11 tackles. Daxton Swanson picked off his eighth interception of the season, a school record. Preston Sanders blocked the MSU field goal.
The Bearkats moved on to the semi-final round to host fourth seeded Montana.
How did SHSU defeat Montana in the semi-final round?
Flanders ran for a career-best 287 yards with 194 of those in the first half along with a touchdown as the Bearkats held on to defeat the Grizzlies 31-28.
An 11-yard touchdown run from quarterback Bell gave Sam Houston State the lead for good before the game was five minutes old. Bell's scoring passes to Grant Merritt and Trey Diller made it 28-7 late in the first half.
Flanders was the best at the end—running for 66 yards including a 22-yard burst on a fourth-and-1 play while Sam Houston ran the final six minutes off the clock.
Montana scored just before the half to make it a 28-14 game and scored with 11:26 left in the fourth quarter to make it 31-28. The Grizzlies had a shot at the lead and drove to midfield. But on a third-and-11 play the pass was short.
Montana punted, and a defense that had been stellar in the second half couldn't get the ball back from Flanders and the Bearkats as they ran the remaining time off.
SHSU advanced to the national title game with this win.
What is the prior history of postseason play for Sam Houston State?
The Bearkats have made it to the FCS playoffs four previous times (1986, 1991, 2001, and 2004). The 2004 season was the best Division I performance prior to this season as SHSU reached the semi-final round.
SHSU moved to Division I starting in the 1986 season. The Bearkats were Division II from 1982 to 1985. Prior to that, SHSU was a member of the NAIA.
The best season the Bearkats had at any level was a co-championship in NAIA in 1964. SHSU defeated Findlay (OH) College on the road in the semifinal round of that association’s playoff, 32-21 and then tied Concordia (MN) College 7-7 in the championship game played in Augusta, Georgia.
The irony there is that Concordia is located in Moorhead, Minnesota which is basically a twin city with Fargo, North Dakota, the home of North Dakota State, who SHSU will play for their second chance ever in a national title game.
Ready for Frisco
The Bearkats have been a young team this year that has gelled and will have just a 200 mile bus ride to get to FC Dallas Stadium (previously named Pizza Hut Park but renamed in time for this game). In fact, SHSU has just four senior starters on their team this year.
Going from a 6-5 team a year ago to the national championship game undefeated is a feat that Coach Fritz, who is in his second season in Huntsville, has been nothing short of remarkable regardless of the outcome on January 7th.