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Oct. 2—HUNTSVILLE — Sam Houston has already won big games in marquee environments, using big plays and a stingy defense to do so.
On their march to a national championship earlier this year, one game was missing for the No. 1 Bearkats — a clash with rival Stephen F. Austin in the annual Battle of the Piney Woods. After a year-long gap, the Bearkats (3-0) and Lumberjacks (3-1) will square off in the 95th edition of Texas' oldest active college football rivalry at NRG Stadium in Houston.
"I don't think you could add any animosity. It's such a unique rivalry," said Bearkat head coach K.C. Keeler, who hopes that his team can secure its 10th straight victory over the Lumberjacks — the largest stretch of dominance in the series. "One of the things you're conscious of is trying to win the football game. You can't worry about taunting and the nonsense. There's going to be a lot of intensity in this game, and that's awesome, but we need to play the game a certain way. You have to play championship football."
Saturday's clash will also be the first under the umbrella of the Western Athletic Conference. The historic conference, which also includes Lamar, Dixie State, Abilene Christian and Tarleton State restarted football for the 2021 season. The league has been matched up with the Atlantic Sun Conference for this season in an effort to gain an automatic qualifier into the FCS Playoffs.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Sam Houston's strong defensive front will need to continue their dominant performance against a pass-heavy offense from the Lumberjacks.
Led by junior quarterback Trae Self, SFA has averaged 287 passing yards per game, while posting 108.8 yards per game on the ground. A major key to the game will likely be in the trenches, with the SFA offensive line allowing two sacks per game against the Bearkat defensive line that is widely thought of as the best in the nation.
"He's a really good football player," Keeler said of Self. "They lost a little bit of their run game with some of the injuries, so they put a lot more on his shoulders. He played well in the fall and he is playing even better this fall. Historically, teams struggle running that ball against us, so we are anticipating a lot of max protection and quick balls out of his hand."
The Bearkat offense will also have to continue to play lights out in this one.
The Lumberjack defense has allowed opponents to rush for 613 yards, while the Kats have rushed for 848 yards through three games. Junior running back Ramon Jefferson has been the main back through the season — ranking fifth in the country with 400 yards.
"They have some good players and so do we," Jefferson said. "I think it's going to be a good game. It is going to be a physical game and it always is, but there is a lot at stake with a rivalry game and playing for something."
However, the Bearkats pride themselves on being a balanced offense.
Junior quarterback Eric Schmid has tossed the ball for 267 yards per game. However, with the way the Lumberjacks have been playing, it could be a difficult challenge to continue. The SFA secondary has held opponents to just 153.75 passing yards per game, while hauling in two interceptions in each contest.
The Bearkats were able to get Graduate Senior Jequez Ezzard back last week, but will still need the assistance from their other receiver core with Cody Chrest, Ife Adeyi and Chandler Harvin.
The Battle of the Piney Woods is set to kickoff at 4 p.m. at NRG stadium in Houston, and will be aired on Bally Sports Southwest and streamed on the ESPN+ platform.
"Every game is a big game to us, we just try and do things one game at a time," Bearkats defensive back Jaylen Thomas said. "We know that this is our rival and we are going to get the best game out of these guys."