(STATS) – In K.C. Keeler’s opinion, his Sam Houston State team and Central Arkansas are so evenly matched that “it’s like looking into a mirror.”
While his assessment might be a bit of coachspeak, the two teams could have at least one major difference following Saturday night’s matchup at UCA. The winner will likely become the Southland Conference’s second team in the playoffs while the losing team might have to watch from home.
The Bearkats (7-3, 6-2) and Central Arkansas (7-3, 7-1) have gotten to this point by overcoming 0-2 starts which included damaging defeats to their playoff resumes. UCA was blown out at Samford in its season opener, and Sam Houston fell to Lamar in its second game – following a bye week.
Both programs also feature a potential future NFL draft pick on their defensive lines, Jonathan Woodard for the Bears and P.J. Hall for Sam Houston.
The teams are close statistically on defense in points and yards allowed, but Sam Houston has the more dynamic offense, ranking in the FCS’ top three with 44.0 points and 544.2 yards per game.
“Sam Houston is an outstanding football team, very balanced offensively. They do a great job with their scheme. They get the ball into playmakers’ hands. They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Bears coach Steve Campbell said. “We will need to play our best game to come out on top this week but we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
The Bearkats enter this game ranked 10th in the STATS FCS poll while Central Arkansas is just outside the Top 25.
Sam Houston is attempting to reach the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year and has advanced to at least the semifinals in three of those trips, including last season. The Bears haven’t made the postseason since 2012.
“We’re excited to go into a playoff kind of atmosphere and a playoff game mentality,” Keeler said. “I think it’s going to be exciting.”
Central Arkansas had to fend off Nicholls State 34-31 last Saturday for its fourth consecutive win. After attempting a seven-lateral play, the Colonels got a chance to throw a Hail Mary following a Bears penalty and that pass was caught six yards shy of the end zone.
Sam Houston, meanwhile, blew out Northwestern State 59-21. Jared Johnson threw for three TDs while Cory Avery ran for a career-high 197 yards and two scores, giving him 429 yards and five TDs in the past three games.
Jalen Overstreet had 73 yards and a TD on the ground in his return from a one-game suspension, reportedly for an arrest for marijuana possession along with receiver LaDarius Brown.
Brown, second on the team with 510 yards, is slated to return this week. He had 106 yards and a touchdown in last year’s 38-31 win over Central Arkansas.
The Bears boast the Southland’s leading receiver in Desmond Smith (61 catches, 752 yards) as well as its second-leading rusher in Blake Veasley (876 yards, 11 TDs). Hayden Hildebrand has the league’s second-best passer rating in conference play.
UCA is 23-4 all-time on the Stripes, its uniquely patterned purple and gray field.
McNeese State can become the first team to finish 9-0 in the Southland and the ninth to end the regular season with an unbeaten overall record in the league’s 52 seasons.
The third-ranked Cowboys (9-0, 8-0) can also get coach Matt Viator a share of the school’s all-time wins record by topping Lamar on Saturday night – and perhaps more importantly to their head man – gain some advantages for the playoffs. A victory would likely secure a top-eight seed and an opening-round bye.
McNeese can aid its chances by doing what no other Southland team has done this season – contain FCS rushing leader Kade Harrington.
The junior became the seventh player in Division I history to surpass 2,000 yards in 10 games in a 28-21 win at Incarnate Word last Saturday, joining a list that includes Barry Sanders and Marcus Allen.
Harrington’s 2,022 rushing yards have shattered the Southland single-season record, and he’s 115 shy of breaking the league’s all-purpose yardage mark held by 14-year NFL veteran Larry Centers – 2,388 for Stephen F. Austin in 1989. Harrington also needs six points to tie the conference’s single-season points record of 144, set by Sam Houston’s Timothy Flanders in 2011.
“I can’t say enough good things about Kade Harrington and what the young man has done. This year has been incredible for him,” Viator said. “I think the thing that jumps out for me is the consistent productivity. I mean it’s happened every week.”
Harrington could boost his chances of becoming the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year with a strong showing against the nation’s second-leading run defense, which is yielding 80.3 yards per game. The Cowboys are also second in points allowed at 10.8 per contest and 11th in total defense.
Harrington was limited to 65 yards and a TD on 17 carries at McNeese in last season’s finale, but the Cardinals won 27-24 for their first victory in five meetings since reviving the program in 2010.
Lamar’s Reggie Begelton had a team-best seven catches for 95 yards in that game. He needs six more receptions to match the Southland’s career record of 229, set by Simmie Yarborough from 2008-11 for Southeastern Louisiana.
PLAYING FOR THE CHIEF=
For the 50th time, Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State will play for what’s billed as the world’s largest sports trophy, Chief Caddo.
The wooden prize stands 7 1/2 feet and weighs around 320 pounds.
Northwestern State (3-7, 3-5) has a 29-19-1 lead in the competition, but SFA (4-6, 4-4) has won five of the last six meetings. The Lumberjacks prevailed 27-24 last season on a 41-yard field goal as time expired.