McFeely: Sam Houston coach Keeler wasn't just blowing smoke

Sam Houston looks like a different program since the last time the Bearkats played NDSU, just as their head coach promised

North Dakota State's Jake Lippe leaves the field after the 24-20 loss to Sam Houston State on Sunday, May 2, 2021, during the FCS quarterfinals at the Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas. David Samson / The Forum

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — "If You're Gonna Play in Texas" was blaring over the Bowers Stadium loudspeakers shortly after Sam Houston finished off North Dakota State on Sunday in a wild and wooly playoff game. That's the anthem by the country music band Alabama that's become the favorite of Bison fans when their favorite football team was mashing an overmatched opponent at the Fargodome to earn another trip to Frisco, Texas.

The Bearkats heard it twice, in 2014 and 2017, losing in dominating fashion as the Bison earned trips to the Football Championship Subdivision title game.

Payback, they say, is a bummer. Or something like that.

The Bearkats got their payback with a thrilling 24-20 comeback victory over the Bison, ending NDSU's streak of three straight national championships and pushing Sam Houston into the semifinals. The postgame celebration by the Bearkats players, coaches and fans was worthy of something that might happen at Toyota Stadium.


North Dakota State's Courtney Eubanks breaks up a pass intended for Sam Houston State's Cody Chrest on Sunday, May 2, 2021, during the FCS quarterfinals at the Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas. David Samson / The Forum

Don't tell the good people of Huntsville, Texas, that this oddball spring season is meaningless. The king is dead. Long live the king.

The takeaway is this: K.C. Keeler was right.

Sam Houston's talkative and supremely confident head coach told anybody who would listen that this version of the Bearkats was different than those that wilted defensively in 35-3 and 55-13 losses to the Bison in Fargo.

They were better on the defensive line, he said.

They were bigger, stronger and more physical he said.

Sam Houston State's Jaylen Thomas plucks the ball out of midair from North Dakota State's Christian Watson on Sunday, May 2, 2021, at the Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas.. David Samson / The Forum


They could stop the run, he said.

The final tally showed NDSU with 139 rushing yards, a measly amount for the mighty Bison, and just 229 total yards.

The Bearkats shut down the Bison. If not for special teams magic, NDSU would've been blown out.

"Hats off to our defense because that was as dominating of a defensive performance as I've ever seen," Keeler said.

If that is over the top, Keeler can be excused. His teams have taken relentless abuse in his seven seasons in Huntsville for being as soft as mashed potatoes on defense. The Bearkats had a knack for getting only so far in the postseason before running into more physical teams.

Sam Houston's reputation was well-earned.

But after NDSU stampeded Sam Houston in the 2017 semifinals in Fargo, running 47 times for 471 yards and totaling 642 yards of offense, Keeler vowed to rebuild the Bearkats in the Bison's image.

It took two years and two seasons of missed playoffs. But when the Bison walked off the turf Sunday, they'd gained the fewest yards by an NDSU team since 2014 in a loss at Northern Iowa.


"It's not vindication, but the plan worked," Keeler said. "There was a method to our madness."

It started up front with a defensive line that had some heft and mobility. Joseph Wallace, a 6-foot-1 tackle weighing 300 pounds, was a force. End Jahari Kay, before leaving the game with an injury in the fourth quarter, was all over the Bison. Linebackers Quentin Brown, Markel Perry and Trevo Williams were fast and physical.

It helped, of course, that's NDSU's offensive line was patched together with duct tape and chicken wire. It helped, too, that Bison true freshman quarterback Cam Miller looked like an overmatched true freshman who badly needed a dominant running game to release the pressure.

But now is not the time to quibble. The Bearkats' defense allowed just three points, on a 33-yard field goal by Jake Reinholz in the fourth quarter that temporarily gave the Bison a 20-17 lead. The rest of NDSU's points came from special teams.

"I knew there was some things that we were going to do to retool ourselves that might take a year. I was hoping it wasn't going to take two," Keeler said. "It took two just because of all the injuries at the quarterback position last year. We stayed the course and got more physical and you could see that on the defensive line."

Keeler credited his athletic director for finding money to hire a full-time strength coach and a nutritionist. He said Sam Houston's coaches talked to anybody they could about getting bigger and stronger to stop the run. The Bearkats recruited differently, too.

"To slow down their run game the way we did, you have to be a physical team," Keeler said. "I think it was very fitting for this game to go the way it did. You saw a physical defense. They really struggled to run the ball."

The Bearkats are still in the conversation for something they don't yet have — a national championship. NDSU and James Madison have dominated that area for the past decade, eight for the Bison and one for the Dukes. Those two programs have been the best in FCS the last several years.


"We are among the elite, but we haven't won the national championship. That's the thing that has kept us from being with those two. We're the third," Keeler said.

It took a little longer than expected, but the payback was worth it. And Keeler gets the credit for building the Bearkats to beat the Bison.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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