University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque has described Sam Houston State as one of the best teams to ever visit Estes Stadium in his 13 years of coaching.
Certainly, the Bearkats, the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision runner-up last season, are the best opponent to play on the stripes at First Security Field. They return the bulk of that 14-1 team including the Southland Conference’s Player of the Year (running back Tim Flanders), the Offensive Player of the Year (back Richard Sincere) and the Defensive Player of the Year (defensive back Darnell Taylor).
"They are a very complete team in all phases," Conque said. "You can see their confidence and swagger and improvements from last year. That’s what a 14-win season will do for you."
"Central Arkansas is an unbelievably tough team," said Willie Fritz, who is in his third year as coach of the Bearkats.
The teams, both nationally ranked (Sam Houston as high as No. 2), have followed mirror paths in non-conference. The Bearkats (1-1) romped past Division II Incarnate Word, then led Baylor at the half last week before being outscored 31-3 in the second half, losing 48-23. UCA (2-1) powered to a 70-3 victory over the NAIA’s Bacone College. The Bears lost their opener to Ole Miss, 49-27, after leading the Rebels at the half. In between, UCA downed Murray State of the Ohio Valley Conference on the road.
It’s the conference opener for both teams.
"Everything is magnified in conference play," Conque said. "A fumbled snap might lead to a field goal against Bacone. In conference play, it could mean the game."
And that’s why a key matchup could be the UCA offense, led by quarterback Wynrick Smothers, against the Sam Houston defense, which attacks on almost every play and plays aggressive man coverage in the secondary. Smothers is No. 2 in the nation in pass efficiency and No. 1 in completion percentage (78 percent).
"Wynrick is playing phenomenal football, but he’s also making a first-time starter mistake once or twice a game," Conque said. "Decision-making at quarterback, in all games but particularly these games, is magnified and every detail is important."
Conque note the style of defense the Bearkats play place a premium on execution and the Bears must avoid situation that allows the SHSU defense to tee off.
"We’ve got to do our damage on early downs," Conque said.
"What is difficult about their defense is it’s hard to get them out of position," said Fritz, whose team possesses a potent offense of their own with Flanders, Sincere and quarterback Brian Bell.
Even though it’s one of the first games of the Southland Conference season, it carries major ramifications down the line.
"Both teams are pretty good and we’ll both have a better gauge of where we stand after this ballgame," said Fritz.
"This game will go a long way in establishing the identity of our teams for 2012," said Conque.