The University of Central Arkansas improvised nicely on a couple of touchdowns, then dipped into a deep well of running backs to unleash Antwon Wells in a 24-10 victory over Northwestern State on Saturday night at Estes Stadium.
It was a methodical victory over the Demons (0-3, 0-2) but one that pushed the Bears (2-1) to the top of the Southland Conference standings at 2-0.
Quarterback Hayden Hildebrand scrambled on a rollout, then turned it into a 49-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Jatavious Wilson for the first score of the game wth 2;36 left in the second quarter. On the Bears’ next possession, he turned to Wells for the grunt yardage on a 64-yard, 14-play drive. A 5-yard pass to Desmond Smith in the corner of the end zone gave UCA a 14-0 lead with 8:52 left in the second quarter.
With the Bears leading 14-7 in the third quarter, Hildebrand set things up with a 19-yard pass to Smith, then improvised again on a rollout when he reversed his field, found a completely clear field and ran for a 12-yard touchdown.
UCA’s Matt Cummins and Eric Piccione exchanged field goals for the final margin.
"Hayden has some speed and has the capability of taking things to the house when he gets the chance," said UCA coach Steve Campbell.
Even with a two-touchdown lead and in general control of the game, the Bears had their anxious moments.
A promising drive by NSU at the start of the second half turned sour when Tyler Williams forced Tuff McClain to fumble after a completion and Juan Jackson returned the fumble to the NSU 38 to set up Hildebrand’s touchdown run and a 14-point lead.
Leading 24-10 in the fourth quarter, the Bears survived a muffed punt by Tre Smith with Prince Ene recovering on the UCA 17.
After a bad snap, Patrick Ponder, who had his best game as a Bear with a 53-yard average on four punts, booted one 52 yards out of his end zone.
The Demons, led by backup quarterback Joe Blumenthal, drove to the UCA 20, the Bear defense held up on three incompletions.
Taking over at their 20 with 7:39 left, the Bears basically ran out the clock with a power-oriented, 14-play drive that left the Demons only 41 seconds for three desperation plays.
Wells, a senior who played for Campbell at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, carried 12 times on that drive for 51 yards. He finished with 129 yards on 25 carries.
"The longer he went, the stronger he got," said Campbell. "I’ve seen him do that before in junior college. I like our running backs. A different week and a different guy steps up."
The Demons gashed the Bears at times, gaining 304 total yards, 180 on the ground. They were assessed 72 yards on eight penalties and were only two of 12 on third down.
The Bears gain 363 yards (136 passing, 227 rushing, were 12 of 21 on third down and ran 82 plays to NSU’s 51. UCA was three of four in the red zone.
"It was a hard fight but no different than I expected," Campbell said. "Anytime you can beat Northwestern State by 14, I’ll take it."
UCA continues its month-long in-state action with a game Saturday night at Arkansas State in Jonesboro.