FCS quarterfinals: Montana St., Sam Houston looks like thriller
The Sports Network
By Sean Shapiro, FCS Assistant
DATE & TIME: Saturday, December 10th, 12 p.m. (et).
FACTS & STATS: Site: Elliott T. Bowers Stadium (14,000) - Huntsville, Texas. Surface: Natural Grass. Television: ESPN. Home Record: Montana State 6-1; Sam Houston State 7-0. Away Record: Montana State 4-1; Sam Houston State 4-0. Neutral Record: Montana State 0-0; Sam Houston State 1-0. Series Record: Tied (2-2). Last Meeting: September 7, 1991 (Sam Houston State def. Montana State, 26-23 at Montana State). Series Streak: Montana State has won two of the last three meetings. Conference: Montana State - Big Sky; Sam Houston State - Southland. Nicknames: Montana State Bobcats; Sam Houston State Bearkats. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Montana State (7); Sam Houston State (1). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Montana State (NS); Sam Houston State (1). Head Coaches: Montana State - Rob Ash (5th year 39-19 at Montana State; 32nd year 215-118-5 Overall); Sam Houston State - Willie Fritz (19th year, 18-5 at Sam Houston State, 154-57-1 Overall). All-Time Record: Montana State (443-448-33); Sam Houston State (458-443-34). FCS Playoff Records: Montana State (5-4); Sam Houston State (4-4). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Montana State 5 (1984, 2002-03, 06, 2010); Sam Houston State 4 (1986, 1991, 2001, 2004).
GAME NOTES: Last week, both teams relied on big plays late to turn away upset bids by Stony Brook and New Hampshire. Sam Houston State, the top seed and heavy favorite against the Big South champion, traded scores before finally getting a game-winning touchdown from Tim Flanders with 1:01 remaining. While the Bearkats won, 34-27, Montana State deflected a potential game-tying extra point with six seconds remaining to hold on for a 26-25 win.
While playing in close games may prepare each team for another close-fought battle, both teams had weaknesses exposed in their first-round victories. Sam Houston State's top-ranked scoring defense (13.8 ppg) wasn't burned by the run, but play action passing proved difficult to stop against Stony Brook. The Bearkats got beat on play action several times, including a wide-open touchdown pass that Stony Brook dropped in the end zone.
If Montana State can develop the run with Cody Kirk (110.8 ypg), the offense could take a page out of Stony Brook's playbook and look for the play action pass from quarterback Denarius McGhee. Of course, McGhee won't be firing on all cylinders if he struggles with turnovers, like he did against New Hampshire. Against the Wildcats, McGhee tossed three interceptions, including a pick-six in the first quarter.
While McGhee will need to improve his decision making from a week ago, Montana State also will have to improve its special teams performance. While safety Steven Bethley did deflect the potential game-tying extra point, the Bobcats struggled on special teams for the before the game-saving play. A poor, 23- yard punt put New Hampshire in a position to tie the game, and earlier a blocked extra point resulted in a two-point runback by the Wildcats.
However, even with last week's mishaps, there is a reason both teams enjoyed time as the top-ranked team in the nation this season. Sam Houston State, the Southland champion, relies heavily on a potent running attack with Flanders (102.9 ypg) and Richard Sincere (63 ypg), a do-it-all wide receiver who operates out of the "Wild Bearkat" formation.
Montana State has fared well against the run this season (125.4 ypg) and linebacker Jody Owens is the leader of a unit that limited New Hampshire to 248 yards of total offense last week. While the passing attack won't be the focal point, the Bobcats will have to prepare for Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell, an efficient passer who has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
While the game will be played in Huntsville, Texas, Montana State has played well on the road this season, going 4-0 against FCS competition. By no means can the Bobcats look past the Bearkats, but a win would likely give them a chance for revenge against in-state rival Montana in the semifinals.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Montana State 31, Sam Houston State 27
12/07 11:07:19 ET