HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Sam Houston's big chance is here, in rainy and humid east Texas in a stadium in which the Bearkats don't lose postseason games.
For years, since 2011 to be specific, Football Championship Subdivision teams have yearned for the chance to get North Dakota State out of the Fargodome for a playoff game.
Get the Bison out of Fargo and the playing field is leveled, the narrative goes. Erase 19,000 madcap fans from the equation and the chances of beating NDSU will increase greatly, it is said.
And it makes perfect sense. The dome does provide an advantage for the Bison, no question.
North Dakota State 78% Sam Houston State 22%
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We shall find out how much of an advantage Sunday. The Bison are finally on the road for a playoff game, a first since 2010.
Sam Houston, 14-0 in playoff games in Bowers Stadium, will get a chance to put the theory to the test Sunday when the Bearkats host NDSU in a quarterfinal game. Instead of a full dome of screaming Bison fans, the game will be contested before a likely crowd of about 6,000 made up largely of orange-clad Sam Houston faithful.
The Bearkats will also have the rest of FCS rooting for them, as one would expect. Perhaps if Sam Houston can knock the Bison out of the playoffs, the rest of the subdivision has hope.
Sam Houston, though, is carrying a burden of its own.
The Bearkats have entered the portion of the playoffs where they will have to prove they are worthy of a No. 2 seed, deserving of all the accolades coming their way and whether head coach K.C. Keeler's claim that he's built his defense to stop the Bison is legit.
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Call it a "prove it" game for the Bearkats.
There is a history that would cause skepticism, you see.
Don't misunderstand, Sam Houston is a top-level FCS program. From 2011 to 2017 the Bearkats were one of the three or four best programs in the subdivision. They played in championship games (losing both to NDSU) in 2011 and 2012 and routinely advanced deep into the bracket through 2017.
But then things happened. And that's where the skepticism enters the picture.
In 2014, Sam Houston advanced to the semifinals before losing 35-3 to NDSU in Fargo. It was a tight game into the third quarter, until the Bison's offensive and defensive lines took control of the situation.
In 2015, Sam Houston got to the semifinals before getting crushed 62-10 at Jacksonville State.
In 2016, Sam Houston went to James Madison for the quarterfinals and lost 65-7.
In 2017, a return trip to the Fargodome for the semifinals ended in a 55-13 stomping.
Those last two no-contests, in particular, raised the question whether Sam Houston could ever advance past the current big guns of FCS — NDSU and James Madison. The Bison ran 47 times for 471 yards and rang up 642 total yards.
Running back Bruce Anderson scored five touchdowns. On four of them, including a pair of lengthy runs, he was was not touched by the Sam Houston defensive player.
Keeler, quotable even in defeat, vowed after that game that his team would get bigger and stronger in order to compete against the Bison.
He believes his team has done that. The Bearkats say they are much stouter up front, with a defensive line that can stop the run.
"We're built to try to match up with what we'll see against North Dakota State," Keeler said this week.
The statistics surely say the Bearkats are better. Sam Houston hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 18 games and have held 15 of their last 19 opponents under 100 total rushing yards.
How much of that is real and how much of it is a product of playing with big leads in the pass-happy, wide-open Southland Conference? The answer will be revealed by Sunday evening.
This Bison team, its roster ravaged by spring season opt-outs and injuries, will not go down as an epic squad. There are issues, particularly along the offensive line. NDSU's defense, too, is short-handed and getting more banged up by the week.
Still, the Bison are not without firepower. They ran for 422 yards at home against Eastern Washington in a first-round playoff game last week. Dominic Gonnella had 163 yards and Jalen Bussey ran for 145 yards. At one point in the second half, the Bison called 26 consecutive running plays.
In other words, they ain't dead yet.
"I'll put the skill guys in our league up against anybody in the country, but when it comes to the guys up front, offensive and defensive linemen, NDSU is a different animal," Keeler said. "We don't have offensive lines like this in our league."
Still, the obvious can't be denied. This is Sam Houston's big chance. Knock off the king, as depleted as the king might be, and prove that the big, bad Bison aren't so big and bad away from the Fargodome.
And maybe most of all, put to rest the abominations of 2015, 2016 and 2017.
This is the Bearkats chance to "prove it."