Knowing his football career could meet an abrupt end anytime from here on out, Cal Poly fifth-year senior linebacker Kennith Jackson is cherishing every moment he has left.
Jackson has tried not to let a single minute go to waste leading up to today’s second-round FCS playoff game at No. 5 Sam Houston State (8-3), as tough a playoff-opening matchup the No. 12 Mustangs (9-2) could have imagined.
“You really do have to put in the extra work to win these types of games,” Jackson said. “That’s what it’s going to take throughout the week, and that’s what I’m focusing on, just watching film and stuff like that. And just those extra little moments, those extra little minutes you have of downtime, you try to get eat those up and get in 5 extra minutes of film. It makes all the difference later on.”
Cal Poly could need everything it can muster to beat the Bearkats in the playoff opener for both teams.
A national runner-up that brought back a large chunk of its team from last season, Sam Houston State is the highest-scoring team in the FCS this year at 44.6 points per game. The Bearkats also sport the third-best rushing defense in the country, allowing just 76.4 yards per game on the ground.
Neither of those statistics bodes well for Cal Poly. The Mustangs themselves rank sixth in the FCS with 38.6 points per game, but they had trouble holding up their end of a shootout with Eastern Washington in a frustrating 34-17 loss four weeks ago.
And the impressively low rushing totals against the Bearkats are likely the biggest concern for Cal Poly, which relies on a run-based triple option to move the ball.
The Mustangs rank third in the FCS with 333.3 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.
Against a team that isn’t likely to give up big gains on the ground, fifth-year senior quarterback Andre Broadous and the offense definitely can hurt themselves the way they did with untimely penalties and turnovers against Eastern Washington and Sacramento State, their two losses this season.
Sam Houston State, “they fly to the football,” Broadous said. “No matter where the ball is, they fly to it.
“With us knowing that, we can’t have any penalties. We can’t get put back third-and-long because it will be hard to convert against those guys.
“We have to execute more. We can’t have those offsides or those holding penalties because a team like this is going to make us pay for that. The main thing for us is no mistakes.”
FBS opponents Baylor (232 rushing yards) and Texas A&M (157 rushing yards) were able to beat the Bearkats with successful rushing attacks, but against FCS foes, Sam Houston State has given up just one rushing touchdown.
Southeastern Louisiana was the only FCS team able to rush for more than 100 yards against the Bearkats, who won that game 70-0.
Sam Houston State is no stranger to lopsided scores.
Aside from a 24-20 loss to Southland Conference co-champion Central Arkansas, the Bearkats won their conference games by an average of 39.7 points.
Though the dominance might lead some to question the level of competition, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh isn’t getting caught up in any talk about this being a down year for the Southland.
“Athletically, they deserve the numbers,” Walsh said. “They’ve earned the numbers they’ve created for themselves. They have 18 returning starters from the national championship game, nine of which are on defense.
“What they did to their conference opponents, they devastated them, and there was really only one or two close games. They’re that good.”
Sam Houston State also provides a unique challenge offensively.
The Bearkats also rank sixth in the FCS with 284.9 rushing yards per game, employing a mix of pro-style running plays with a shotgun wildcat package run through junior running back and two-time Southland Player of the Year Tim Flanders, who averages 104.6 rushing yards.
Jackson likened the looks Cal Poly is likely to see from Sam Houston State to the offenses of Wyoming, which the Mustangs beat 24-22 for the first FBS upset in Walsh’s four-year tenure with the program, and Portland State, which Cal Poly beat 37-25.
Facing the option plays the Bearkats run out of the shotgun will be a taste of what the Mustangs’ opponents see from the Cal Poly offense.
Jackson, and linebackers Johnny Millard, Nick Dzubnar and Cameron Ontko could be the key to stopping the run.
“We’re going to have to do a great job of being disciplined in what we do,” Jackson said, “because they have a lot of movement in the backfield and things like that that really try to get your eyes out of place and create some mistakes on the defensive side. That’s where they can break big with the athletes that they have.”