Balanced Bearkats have Eastern’s attention

Sam Houston State has a lot of offensive weapons, including All-American running back Tim Flanders. (Associated Press)

Sam Houston State knows how to keep its options open.

The Bearkats’ offense is hard to define, much less contain, employing a variety of formations that capitalize on team speed, deception and a savvy quarterback.

The result is a balanced offense that ranks second in the nation in scoring at 42 points a game going into Saturday’s FCS semifinal game at Eastern Washington.

Officially, the Bearkats run a triple-option, but incorporate elements of the double-option, zone-read and pistol formations. Quarterback Brian Bell always lines up in shotgun, and can hand off to All-America running back Tim Flanders, keep the ball himself, or pass to a deep, talented receiving corps.

That may be deflating to Eagle fans who figured they’d already been there, done that, after shutting down Cal Poly’s triple-option last month. These Bearkats are a different animal.

Eastern Washington defensive coordinator John Graham likens the Sam Houston offense to that of the pistol used by Portland State, which tested the Eagles before losing 41-34 in the regular-season finale on Nov. 17.

“It’s option football, but they use a lot of different personnel,” Graham said. “And they use a lot of different formations to get you spread out and create running lanes.”

New this season for the Bearkats: more passing lanes.

Last year, Sam Houston averaged 258 yards rushing and 157 passing, but under new offensive coordinator Doug Ruse, those numbers have improved to 274 and 187, respectively.

“We’re throwing the ball a lot more than we have in the past and we’re throwing more on first downs,” head coach Willie Fritz said. “I feel much more confident throwing on third-and-long.

“I don’t like getting into those situations – no coach does – but I feel like we’ve gotten a little more sophisticated in our passing attack.”

It starts with Bell, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound true junior who by all accounts is stronger and faster than he looks, and has 262 rushing yards to prove it; he’s been sacked only four times this year.

Bell intended to redshirt as a true freshman in 2010, but took over three games into the season. “After a couple of games, I realized he was the best quarterback we had by far, so we took him off the redshirt and he’s been the starter ever since,” Fritz said.

Bell throws a “really catchable ball,” Fritz said. “He’s got a great mind for the game and we have complete confidence in him running our offense.”

This year, Bell is 169 for 276 passing for 2,375 yards, with 23 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Bell’s 182.7 pass-efficiency rating is 10th in FCS.

“He’s more than capable of hurting you downfield,” Graham said after watching film of Sam Houston State’s 34-16 quarterfinal win at Montana State. In that game, Bell was 12 for 22, but threw touchdown passes of 56, 16 and 46 yards.

Wide receiver Trey Diller has 865 yards and four TDs, but deep threat Chance Nelson has 662 yards and nine TDs while averaging 20.1 yards per catch.

But as Eastern safeties coach Jeff Schmedding pointed out before Tuesday’s practice, “We see some pretty good receivers in practice as well. But you’ve got to play your base technique, do your job and be disciplined.”

The passing lanes wouldn’t be there if opposing defenses didn’t cheat up to stop Flanders, a third-team All-America selection who has rushed for 1,358 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Backs Richard Sincere and Keshawn Hill each have more than 500 yards and together average 6 yards a carry.

Graham said he’s impressed with the Bearkat backs getting to the corner.

“They’re real fast and they try to attack you on the perimeter,” Graham said.

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