Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler knew he needed to solidify his defense to win in the playoffs, which was discussed here.
Keeler saw his plan pay dividends on Saturday, with the Kats defense providing huge plays at the end of the game of a 21-15 win over No. 10 Monmouth in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
No. 4 Sam Houston advances to host either No. 8 Eastern Washington or No. 7 North Dakota State, who has won eight of the last nine national titles and three straight, at a date and time to be determined.
Monmouth entered the game, having committed only one turnover, on a fumbled quarterback exchange, in three games this spring. The Kats pressured Hawks freshman quarterback Tony Muskett throughout the game resulting in 15 tackles for loss, six sacks, and two interceptions.
The two interceptions were crucial to the Kats victory, with both interceptions ending Monmouth drives inside the red zone. The final interception by Isaiah Downes, on fourth and goal with under a minute remaining in the game, sealed the win.
"We knew he had to make a stop and get off the field,” Downes said. “I felt like we were playing sloppy, and when the ball came, I knew I had to secure the win."
Monmouth had struggled against the aggressive Kats defense until the Hawks were able to drive down the field and score their first touchdown early in the fourth quarter, which began a furious comeback attempt.
"They did a great job getting us in some man-to-man situations and throwing some screen routes,” Keeler said. “We see the tunnel screen all the time, but I thought they did an exceptional job blocking it.
"To play us, you're either going to max protect, catch the ball and throw it immediately, or you're going to throw the screen game, and we know that's how you play us. When you go against a defensive line as good as ours, you try to wear them out with the screen game.
With Monmouth’s offense gaining momentum and efficiently moving down the field with time running out, SHSU made some vital defensive adjustments.
"We play zero or one deep a lot and our guys started realizing the slot fade was going to be their big routes,” Keeler said. “Our guys did a good job mixing the defense after that. When we played zone, we did some things to take them out of their rhythm.
"We do a great job in the red zone. It's the money zone, and the field shrinks so you can play some different coverages rather than straight man-to-man."
"We didn't convert enough third downs and came away empty in the red zone on two occasions,” Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan said. “There were some things they took away, and there were some things their size and quickness prevented us from doing early in the game.
“In the second half, we tried to get the ball on the perimeter a bit more, and we had some success there, but it wasn't enough to sustain the drives to get the ball in the end zone."
Sam Houston begins preparing for the FCS quarterfinals with a few injury concerns. Both offensive tackles departed the game due to injury.
Starting left tackle Eleasah Anderson left during the first half and did not return while starting right tackle, D’Ary Patton left during the fourth quarter but was able to return.
SHSU also suffered a key injury in the secondary, with standout cornerback Zyon McCollum leaving the game and was unable to return.
The status of Anderson and McCollum for next week was not immediately known following the game.
"I have no idea on their injury,” Keeler said. “I think there's a decent chance we'll get one or both of them back, but it's one of those things where time will tell."
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