No. 3 Kats to open 2017 vs No. 7 Spiders

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WACO – Game 1
Friday, Sept. 1 • Waco, Texas • 6 p.m. • McLane Stadium (45,140)
No. 3 Sam Houston State (0-0, 0-0 SLC) vs No. 7 Richmond (0-0, 0-0 CAA)
Live Stats • ESPN3 • @BearkatsFB on Twitter • Complete SHSU Game Notes

Even with a delay due to Hurricane Harvey, one of the premier non-conference games in all of the FCS will still take place when No. 3 Sam Houston State takes on No. 7 Richmond on Friday at Baylor’s McLane Stadium.

The game has experienced its fair share of flux with it originally being scheduled for August 31 before being moved up to August 27 to accommodate a national broadcast on ESPNU. Those August 27 plans were thrown into a kink last week with Hurricane Harvey making landfall along the Texas Gulf Coast; however, due to diligent work from both Sam Houston State and Richmond officials, and the generosity of Baylor University, the game was able to be rescheduled and relocated for Friday.

Kickoff is officially set for 6:05 p.m. CT in Waco with the game still counting as a home game for the Bearkats. The top-10 matchup will be broadcast on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app with Tom Franklin on the call and John Harris on analysis.

Fans can also listen along on KSAM 101.7 with Kooter Roberson on the call, E.P. Garth on analysis and Brian Adams on the sideline. Live stats will also be available and fans can get live updates by following @BearkatsFB on Twitter.

Admission for the game at McLane Stadium will be at no charge to fans, while parking will be on a first-come, first-served basis. Fans and other attendees can find all information regarding parking and maps around McLane Stadium by clicking HERE.

Friday will mark the first time that Sam Houston and Richmond have ever squared off. This will be the fourth time the Kats have played a current member of the CAA, but the first time in the regular season. Sam is 2-1 vs those teams, defeating Stony Brook in the 2011 playoffs and Villanova in the 2014 playoffs before falling at James Madison in the FCS playoffs a year ago.

- Sam Houston is one of just two teams in the FCS, along with North Dakota State and New Hampshire, to reach the FCS playoffs each of the last six seasons. In that time the Kats have posted an impressive 14-6 mark, trailing only the Bison in playoff wins during that span. Sam Houston has reached at least the quarterfinals in four of those six seasons, including back-to-back trips to the FCS championship game in both 2011 and 2012.

- The Bearkats reached the double-digit victory plateau for the third straight season and fifth of the last six seasons in 2016. In its 101-year history, Sam Houston has won at least 10 games eight times (1956, 2001, 2004, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016).

- The Kats are 17-10 all-time in the FCS playoffs and own the country’s third-best winning percentage (.629) in the playoffs. Last season Sam Houston made its sixth straight appearance in the FCS Playoffs and 10th overall.

- Jeremiah Briscoe has put up numbers wherever he has played as a Bearkat, but he has excelled at Bowers Stadium. Since getting the start in the FCS quarterfinals against Colgate in 2015, he has made 7 straight starts at Bowers, throwing for at least 338 yards in each of those contests. During that run he has averaged 389 yards through the air with 36 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions in leading the Bearkats to a 7-0 home record as a starting quarterback.

- The Bearkats are currently riding a 13-game win streak at Bowers Stadium dating back to a 49-46 loss to Lamar on Sept. 19, 2015, a streak that is the longest current such streak in the FCS. Since 2010 the Kats have been near perfect on the Bowers Stadium turf, winning 38 of their last 40 games in front of their home crowd.

- The Kats would secure their first season-opening win over a ranked opponent in school history.

- The Kats would win their 16th game of all time against a team ranked in the top 10 of the national polls.

- The Kats would move to 3-1 against current Colonial Football schools.

- Sam Houston would move to 75-25 in 100 games played since 2010. They enter the 2017 season fifth in the nation in win percentage (.747) since 2010, trailing only North Dakota State (.885), Harvard (.843), Eastern Washington (.755) and Jacksonville State (.750).

- K.C. Keeler would win his 209th career game. He enters 2017 currently in a tie with Wofford’s Mike Ayers for 17th in all-time wins among FCS head coaches. Next on the all-time list is former SHSU head coach Ron Randleman, who sits 16th with 218 career wins.

There is no cupcake right out of the gate for Sam Houston in 2017 as the Kats host Richmond to kick off the year. Both teams were FCS Quarterfinalists a year ago and are ranked among the top seven teams in the nation to open the season with a core of returners back. Since joining the Division I ranks in 1986, the Kats have twice opened up the season against nationally-ranked opponents, doing so both times on the road at Nevada (1986) and Eastern Washington (2014), each time when the opponent was the preseason No. 1 team in the country. The game vs the Spiders is the first time Sam Houston has hosted a ranked opponent in its season opener.

When the Bearkats take on Richmond to open up 2017, it will be the 45th time Sam Houston has been involved in a game between ranked opponents and the 15th time with both teams ranked inside the national top 10. The Kats are 24-20 in games in which both teams were ranked, winning eight times in their last 12 tries.

Sunday’s game vs Richmond may be the first time Sam Houston has ever squared off against the Spiders, but it will not be the first time they have seen Richmond head coach Russ Huesman standing on the east sideline of Bowers Stadium. Huesman was patrolling the sidelines for Chattanooga in 2016 when the Mocs came into Bowers Stadium for the second round of the FCS playoffs a year ago prior to taking the head job at Richmond in the off-season. He also served on the Richmond staff as defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2008 where he faced off against current SHSU head coach K.C. Keeler’s Delaware squads annually as CAA rivals in those seasons.

Last season Sam Houston ran the table on its way to winning the outright Southland Conference title with a perfect 9-0 mark. The Kats will be looking to win back-to-back league crowns in 2017 for the first time since 2011 and 2012, but have never won consecutive outright titles. The last team to win two straight outright SLC crowns was McNeese in 2006 and 2007.

The 2016 season was the first time in school history the Bearkats not only started the year ranked in the top 5 of the national polls, but also stayed there throughout the year. Sam Houston opened up the season as the No. 2 team in the STATS FCS poll and eventually rose to No. 1 midway through the year before finishing ranked No. 5. Since K.C. Keeler took over the program, the Bearkats have been inside the top 25 polls each time a poll has been released, while the last poll released without the Kats in the top 10 was on Nov. 9, 2015.

When Jeremiah Briscoe threw for five touchdowns against Chattanooga, it moved him past Mississippi Valley State’s Willie Totten (1984) and Grambling State’s Bruce Eugene (2005) for the all-time FCS record with 57. His mark was just one touchdown shy of tying Colt Brennan’s Division I record of 58 set in 2008, and four short of tying Linfield’s Brett Elliott who holds the NCAA mark (all divisions) with 61 touchdowns in 2004.

The Bearkats racked up on postseason awards in 2016 with no awards bigger than Jeremiah Briscoe claiming the Walter Payton Award as the nation’s top player and head coach K.C. Keeler taking the Eddie Robinson Award as the nation’s top coach. It was the first time either award has gone to a Bearkat or a member of the Southland Conference. It is also just the second time in history one program has claimed both awards with the pair joining Villanova’s Brian Finneran and Andy Talley who claimed the awards in 1997.

Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards (2008 & 2009) is the only player to repeat as the winner of the Walter Payton Award, while North Dakota State’s Craig Bohl is the only coach to win the Eddie Robinson Award in consecutive seasons (2012 & 2013).

It was a historic run for the Bearkats in the 2016 regular season as they entered the FCS Playoffs at 11-0, becoming the 43rd team in all of FCS since 1978 to navigate an entire regular season unscathed, and just the 28th to do so with at least 11 games played. It was the second time since 2011 that the Kats finished a regular season undefeated (2011). Sam Houston and fellow SLC member McNeese are the only two schools in the nation to have multiple (2) undefeated regular seasons in FCS since 2007.

The Bearkat offense stole much of the headlines in 2016, but P.J. Hall got his fair share on the defensive side as well. Hall finished second in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award for the national defensive player of the year, adding 13 sacks to his career total while finishing with 24.5 tackles for loss. He enters his senior season with 36 career sacks, a mark tied with Andre Finley for the most in program history.

That was the mantra for the Bearkat offense in 2016, and it fit, considering how quickly the Kats would strike once getting the ball. Sam Houston scored 89 offensive touchdowns a year ago, with 54 of those drives taking up less than 2 minutes on the game clock.

With an offense as prolific as the Kats’ was in 2016, it’s no surprise that the ball was spread around. Sam Houston boasted a pair of receivers - Yedidiah Louis (1,152) and Nathan Stewart (1,004) - who surpassed 1,000 yards receiving last season. Davion Davis finished just 40 yards short of the mark, keeping the Kats just short of joining the 2013 and 2014 Fordham squads as the only teams in FCS history to sport three 1,000-yard receivers on the roster in the same year. Eastern Washington managed to pull off the feat in 2016, so should the Kats do it in 2017, they would now be the fourth FCS team in history to do so.

The 2016 season did not end the way the Bearkats thought it would in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs, but going into the game against eventual national champion James Madison, the Kats had been absolutely dominant. Sam Houston did not trail in a game until its 10th game of the season at Northwestern State less than five minutes into the first quarter. Prior to its loss to JMU, Sam Houston had only surrendered a lead at any point on three occasions and its 21-21 tie early in the third quarter of its second-round win over Chattanooga was the first time Sam Houston had not held the lead in the second half at any point in the year. In fact, going into its game at JMU, Sam had only been tied or behind for 65 minutes and 42 seconds of the 720 total minutes played, including 56 minutes and 36 seconds of that span being a 0-0 tie.

After leading the nation in scoring at 49.5 points per game in 2016, the Bearkats are handing the reins of the offense over to a new coordinator in 2017. Tim Cramsey takes the headset, replacing Phil Longo who departed to become the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss. Cramsey was most recently the play caller at Nevada, but is no stranger to the FCS and being part of dominant offenses. He spent three seasons directing the offense at Montana State, including a 2015 season that saw the Bobcats average 41.9 points per game.

The Kats looked internally and elevated Clayton Carlin to defensive coordinator following the departure of Brad Sherrod, who joined the defensive staff at Wake Forest. Carlin spent 2016 on Keeler’s staff coaching defensive backs, but has held the defensive coordinator spot at three stops prior to Sam Houston. Most recently he was the defensive coordinator for four years at Coastal Carolina, but also held the position at both Bucknell and Cornell before eventually joining the Chanticleers.

Points have not been a problem under head coach K.C. Keeler for the Bearkats. In 44 games since he took over in 2014, the Kats have scored 30 or more points on 36 occasions, going 33-3 in those games. In all, Sam Houston has scored no less than 34 points in each of its last 25 victories.

Wide receiver Yedidiah Louis set a career-high 11 receptions against Northwestern State in 2016, and a week later turned in an even better game with 168 yards and 4 touchdowns in the win over Central Arkansas. In the Kats’ playoff win vs Chattanooga he moved past Matt Dominguez for the all-time Sam Houston mark in career receptions. On the conference side of things, Louis is also approaching new high-water marks among Southland Conference players. He needs just 51 more receiving yards to become the first 3,000-yard receiver in SLC history and needs 325 yards to surpass Dominguez’s school and league mark of 3,273 receiving yards and 12 more catches to pass Southeastern Louisiana’s Simmie Yarborough’s SLC record of 229 career receptions.

The Kats expect to get help from their heralded signing class, but will also be looking at its transfer additions to help immediately. There are 17 FBS transfers currently on the roster, including nine joining this season. Additions such as Darius Mouton (UNLV), Payton Hendrix (Texas Tech), JacColbie Butler (UTSA) and Craig Williams Jr. (Fresno City College) are expected to transform the secondary, while Chris Stewart (Wake Forest), Spencer Williams and Sekou Clark (Trinity Valley CC) have arrived to help a defensive line that lost five of eight off the final two-deep of 2016. Additionally, the Sam Houston added help on the offensive line with Ty Barrett (TCU) and Zack Kinninger (Fresno State) after losing three pieces of last year’s protection corps, while Josh Moore (Missouri) is expected to be a key addition at tight end.

Sam Houston touted one of the top offensive lines in 2016 and returns two key pieces to it for 2017 in preseason all-SLC tackle Mitchell Watanabe and senior guard Tyler Tezeno, who was chosen as a preseason third team all-American by STATS FCS. Sam Houston finished the year with 17 sacks allowed in 13 games, but just eight in 11 regular season games. That number looks even better when you consider the Kats dropped back to throw more than 560 times, averaging a sack once every 33.1 dropbacks.

With all-American P.J. Hall leading the charge, the Bearkat defense was one of the top sack teams in the nation in 2016, averaging more than three per game for the year and ranking in the nation’s top 10. Sam Houston finished with 49 sacks for the season, and did their work in bulk. They only went without a sack once in 13 games, picking up at least two in each of the other 12 games. That included seven in a blowout win over Houston Baptist in late September.

The Bearkats were not only productive with sacks, but finished with 100 tackles for a loss as a team a year ago. Sam Houston returns 55.5 of those TFLs, but 24.5 of those came from Hall. The Kats will be looking to talented newcomers such as Chris Stewart, Spencer Williams, Erick Fowler and a host of others to replace the 44.5 lost from 2016.

The third phase of the game has been an area where the Kats have excelled in recent years. Sam Houston has sported a first team all-SLC punter each of the past two seasons in Joseph Figenshaw and Lachlan Edwards, who currently is playing for the NFL’s New York Jets. They’ll be looking for sophomore Cameron Hearn to take over in 2017. Tre Hohnstein is set to take over at kicker after spending 2016 as the Kats’ kickoff specialist. He also converted nine field goals as a freshman in 2015, including a 51-yard field goal that is the longest by a Kat since 2005. The Kats also led the SLC in kickoff coverage in 2016, while kick returner Jaylen Harris earned second team all-SLC honors as a redshirt freshman and finished with seven kick returns of 40+ yards on his way to becoming the first Bearkat in history with over 1,000 kick return yards in a single season.