Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word know they face a tough road to this year’s FCS title, starting with Saturday’s matchup at San Antonio’s Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium. Whoever wins will have to prepare for defending champions and top seed the Sam Houston Bearkats in the next round.
Incarnate Word topped Southland with a 7-1 mark and finished 9-2 overall. Their success hinges on an explosive offense geared by a dynamic double act of quarterback Cameron Ward and running back Kevin Brown. SFA will counter with a versatile defense headlined by safety Myles Heard, a true all-rounder who can wreck both phases of any offense.
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Stephen F. Austin vs Incarnate Word 2021 Preview
Ward is the star for a team making just its second foray into the postseason, thanks largely to his 38 touchdown passes, the third-best mark in the nation. He’s made Taylor Grimes his favorite target, connecting with the wideout 68 times. Grimes has turned those receptions into 923 yards and 11 scores, but he’s not the only pass-catcher the SFA defense will need to worry about.
Darion Chafin and Robert Ferrel combined to catch 16 touchdowns, while CJ Hardy averaged an impressive 13.89 yards per catch. SFU can keep this group in check if cornerback Jeremiah Walker is on form. He snatched four interceptions during the regular season, the same number as fellow corner Myles Brooks. They are both tall and rangy cover men who can play press and trail receivers in man coverage.
There’s an opportunistic streak running through the Lumberjacks’ secondary, but the group has still struggled to restrict receivers this season. SFU give up “nearly 300 passing yards per game,” per NCAA.com’s Stan Becton.
Letting Brooks and Walker stay on islands does at least free up Heard to create havoc closer to the line of scrimmage. The all-action box safety has forced four fumbles and made 3.5 tackles for loss in 2021. Adding Heard to pressure packages featuring agile rush end BJ Thompson and defensive tackle Rayshad Nichols, who both led the team with 8.5 sacks, will be the Lumberjacks’ best way to stifle Ward and his receivers.
When SFU have the ball, it’ll be all about getting Xavier Gipson involved. The return ace is a demon on special teams, but Gipson has developed as a quality wide receiver this season. Gipson led the offense with 68 receptions for 1,266 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s the player UIW must contain.
That daunting task will fall to Rashon Davis. Fortunately for UIW, the opportunistic defensive back has enjoyed an exceptional season. His numbers include three interceptions and 12 pass breakups, both team-best marks.
Davis’ job will be made easier if linebacker Kelechi Anyalebechi is disruptive along the front. He has the range to be a factor in coverage, but Anyalebechi is at his best whenever he’s turned loose on the quarterback. SFU passer Trae Self will want to know where No. 8 is on every play.
The Lumberjacks have more experience in the playoffs, but the Cardinals boast the superior overall talent, particularly on offense. If Ward, Grimes and Brown click early, UIW will steadily overwhelm SFU.