When Lamar restarted its football program, dormant since 1989, back in 2010, few people outside of the Golden Triangle took note. The small school in Beaumont didn’t have a rich football history when the Cardinals were competing. The program occasionally challenged or won either the Southland or the Lone Star conference, but as far as history goes, the Cardinals didn’t have much to rely on.
That went double for Incarnate Word. The even smaller Catholic school perched just north of downtown San Antonio didn’t field a football team until 2009. In the nine years since formation, the other Cardinals mustered two winning seasons, not dominant winning seasons at that, both just above .500 at 6-5.
Now, after Sunday’s FCS selection show, the two Cardinals are making their FCS playoff debuts. UIW won the Southland along with McNeese State. Picked ninth in the preseason poll. UIW won just one game in 2017 and relieved head coach Larry Kennan of his position. Then UIW made a splash and hired a dynamo of a young head coach in former Tech receiver Eric Morris. When Morris spoke at the Southland media day and said he was setting about changing the program’s culture, it felt like another round of banquet room coach speak.
Morris, to his credit, has transformed the tiny school's football team into an exciting, fast, physical squad that beat traditional Southland powers like Central Arkansas, Sam Houston State, and McNeese for the first time in the school’s fledgling football history.
As the UIW players raised the Southland trophy two weeks ago, Morris didn’t look shocked or surprised. Morris looked like a man who knew he’d be in that spot, just maybe not this soon.
In Beaumont, the 2018 season started like most Lamar football seasons since 2010 - badly. Mike Schultz’ team beat Kentucky Christian to open the season then promptly lost four straight, including three league contests. But Schultz has seen a lot of football, as an assistant to Gary Patterson, Dennis Franchione, and Fred Akers, among others, and he knew the 1-4 look was deceiving.
Lamar lost two of those three league games by one score, and in spite of the preseason poll tabbing the Cardinals tenth in the Southland, Schultz knew in his second year, the Cards were coming.
A week later in the Bird Bowl, Lamar knocked off Incarnate Word in a game that didn’t carry much significance at the time. A week later they welcomed fourteenth ranked Sam Houston State to Provost Umphrey field in Beaumont and handed the Bearkats a convincing loss. Two wins in a row became three and by the final whistle Saturday in Lake Charles, after the Cards knocked off league champion McNeese, Lamar and Schultz strung together six straight wins, three over ranked opponents.
These Birds have come out of nowhere and from different directions. While UIW and Lamar are one/two in scoring offense in the Southland, UIW leads the league in passing thanks to Morris’ Air Raid scheme. Lamar leads the Southland in rushing at 250 yards per game. They rely on the same blue-collar attitude that Schultz instilled in TCU’s offense when he oversaw an attack that vaulted LaDainian Tomlinson to a Doak Walker award and a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
UIW is going to try and light up the scoreboard and hope their defense, ranked tenth in the Southland can hold on. While Lamar will try to grind out the clock and rely on its defensive unit which is improving and in the middle of the Southland pack. In their last four games, Lamar’s defense allowed less than 20 points three times.
At UIW a true freshman quarterback from Argyle, Jon Copeland, set single-season records in yards (2,984), touchdowns (22) and completions (206). At Lamar SMU transfer Darrel Colbert is the steady hand under center.
The two teams will travel to different remote locations next weekend for their first ever playoff games, UIW heads up to frigid Bozeman, Montana to take on Big Sky member Montana State. The elements will favor the Bobcats, but we’re confident Eric Morris has a few tricks remaining up his sleeve. Lamar heads to Cedar Falls, Iowa where they’ll at least find shelter in the UNI-Dome as they face Northern Iowa.
Both schools are underdogs, but then they’re used to that.