NACOGDOCHES, Texas — A tenacious defensive effort up front and a tweaked offensive game plan in the second half carried the No. 16/18 University of Central Arkansas Bears to a 27-17 victory over the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks on Saturday afternoon in Southland Conference action at Homer Bryce Stadium.
The Bears (4-2, 3-1), after leading just 10-7 at halftime, rolled up 272 yards of offense in the second half and secured their sixth consecutive victory over the Lumberjacks (1-5, 1-4).
UCA finished with 379 yards of total offense — after just 107 in the first 30 minutes — and forced a fumble and picked off two passes.
The UCA defense recorded 13 tackles for loss and six sacks, led by junior Chris Terrell with 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks and sophomore Nathan Grant with three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
"How about that defensive line,” UCA coach Nathan Brown said. "They got to pin their ears back. We made them (SFA) one dimensional. We forced three turnovers and we protected the football until right there at the end. And that's how you win on the road. It was tough sledding, but that's a testament to how good this team can be. They pulled the rope. And, you have to win tough games like this sometimes in this conference.”
UCA struck first when Terrell had a strip sack of SFA quarterback Jake Blumrick at midfield, with linebacker Reggio Dean scooping the ball and returning it 46 yards to the SFA 5 early in the first quarter.
Three plays later, junior running back Carlos Blackman went in from the 2 for an early 7-0 UCA lead. After the teams traded punts, SFA got a one-play scoring drive, an 85-yard touchdown pass from Blumrick to Terian Goree — the longest allowed by UCA this season — tying it at 7-7 with 5:08 left in the first quarter.
The Bears retook the lead on a 19-yard field goal by senior Matt Cummins with 10:37 left in the second quarter but did not score again in the half.
The Bears managed only 107 total yards of offense on 41 plays in the first half, an average of just 2.6 yards per play.
UCA's defense, however, forced two turnovers in the first half, including an interception by junior cornerback Duke Upshaw at the Bears' 23 with just 11 seconds left in the half to keep the Lumberjacks off the board.
Aided by a roughing the passer and targeting penalty on SFA's Gavin Roland, the Bears drove 66 yards in just four plays and 33 seconds midway through the third quarter, ending with a rugged 31-yard run around left end by Blackman to grab a 17-10 lead.
On their next series, sophomore running back Kierre Crossley got the Bears deep into SFA territory with a couple of nice runs before Luke Hales lofted a 15-yard touchdown pass to senior Lester Wells in the left corner of the end zone, good for a 24-10 advantage with 2:16 left in the third quarter.
The Lumberjacks then drove inside the UCA 5 but the Bears' defense tightened up and forced a 4th-and-4 play from the 4.
The snap went over Blumrick's head and he fell on the ball way out at the UCA 30, where the Bears took over.
UCA got a 34-yard field goal from Cummins with 6:15 left before SFA added a final score on a 7-yard pass from Blumrick to Frank Iheanocho with 3:00 remaining.
The Lumberjacks recovered an onside kick but the Bears' defense held on fourth down with 2:11, aided by consecutive sacks by Grant.
UCA drove deep into SFA territory attempting to run out the clock and Kierre Crossley ran for 41 yards down to thee SFA 15 before fumblin with 59 seconds left.
But on SFA's third play, junior Trai Mosley intercepted Blumrick at the 41 to seal it.
"We knew it would be tough, this is not an easy place to play,” Brown said. "They've got talented players, they're just in a tough spot right now trying to figure out who they are as a team. Lot of credit to them, they came out ready to play. They had a good plan for us. They loaded the box and we told our running backs, you're going to have to make some tough yards in the second half to win this game.
"And I thought all three of those running backs (Blackman, Crossley, Cedric Battle) and our offensive line really came on in the third and fourth quarter. We made some good adjustments on the offensive side of the ball at halftime. I thought (offensive coordinator) Ken Collums and our offensive staff got in and made some quick adjustments like you need to as a good coach. But we also made a couple of plays. Our running backs ran hard. Carlos really got us going with that big run. I think he ran through the whole team.”
Hales, in just the second start of his career, finished 19 of 41 for 226 yards and one touchdowns but was sacked just once.
For SFA, Blumrick went 26 for 45 for 358 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions and was sacked six times.
Crossley had 91 yards rushing and Blackman added 15, while Wells caught a team-high six passes for 90 yards.
Junior safety Juan Jackson led all tacklers with 12 stops, while senior Michael Ware added nine.
"I thought Luke Hales played gutsy,” Brown sadi. "I knew they were going to come at him, being a young guy. And he's going to continue to get that from week to week here on out. He took some hits but he stood in there and our receivers made some plays. He stood in there, bleeding from the nose... he's a tough kid.
"It was just a good team effort. The defense really stoned them up there until the very end. When your defense is playing like that, usually you're going to win football games.”
UCA returns home to host the Northwestern State Demons at 6 p.m. Saturday at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.