Editor’s note: See coverage of the UCA game Saturday at thecabin.net and in Tuesday’s print edition.
On top of the University of Central Arkansas being one of the few teams playing a nearly full 2020 football schedule, one of the most formidable in school history, the Bears will also be on display Saturday night competing in the first college football game of the year on national television.
When UCA takes on Austin Peay in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., it will be the first collegiate football game since the Senior Bowl back on Jan. 30. It will also be in front of an ESPN audience at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The game was originally a home game for the Bears but UCA announced in January that it had been invited to take on the Governors in the seventh annual FCS Kickoff on Week Zero at the historic Cramton Bowl, which opened in 1922. Ironically, the Bears will also play the first FBS (Football Championship Series) game next Thursday when they take on the UAB Blazers in Birmingham, Ala.
With COVID-19 throwing a wrench in college football schedules around the country this summer, UCA’s administration, coaching staffs and student-athletes decided to play as much of a normal fall schedule as possible. It begins Saturday night.
“It’s kind of surreal really to be looking at Game Week right in the middle of all of this,’ said third-year coach Nathan Brown. “It’s definitely an exciting time here in Conway, Ark., for sure. I know our young men have worked very hard for this moment.
“We’re representing football players and coaches across the country right now, especially this weekend.’
The Bears and Governors should not only provide the first college football game of the season, but also what is expected to be a highly competitive one. UCA scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns a year ago _ both on passes from Breylin Smith to Lujuan Winningham _ to rally for a 24-16 win over APSU on the road in Clarksville, Tenn. Both programs went on to win at least a share of their respective conference championships, with UCA tying Nicholls for the Southland Conference title with 7-2 records, and APSU winning the Ohio Valley Conference crown with a 7-1 mark.
The Bears and Governors both advanced to the FCS Playoffs, with UCA losing to Illinois State in the second round and APSU recording wins over Furman and Sacramento State before losing to Montana State in the third round. The Bears finished 11th in the two final FCS Polls last season, while the Governors were 10th and 13th.
Saturday’s matchup will feature some of the top wide receiver talent at the FCS level. APSU’s DeAngelo Wilson (5-10, 160, junior) caught 89 passes for 1,564 yards (first in the nation) and 15 touchdowns (tied for second) a year ago. Baniko Harley (6-1, 181, senior) backed him up with 53 receptions for 839 yards and seven more touchdowns.
UCA counters with junior Winningham (6-3, 190) and sophomore Tyler Hudson (6-2, 185). Hudson was the SLC Freshman of the Year after leading the Bears with 55 receptions for 975 yards and 12 touchdowns, which is second best in UCA history. Winningham, despite missing four games with a broken arm, caught 50 passes for 814 yards and eight touchdowns, including 43- and 18-yarders to seal the win over the Governors. Hudson added a 37-yard touchdown pass from Smith in the third period as UCA put up 21 second-half points in the first of many come-from-behind victories in 2019.
Smith, a junior from Conway, threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns vs. the Governors a year ago, en route to a school-record 3,704 passing yards and a record-tying 32 touchdowns. APSU junior quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall was injured in the first quarter against the Bears and missed the remainder of the season.
Both teams have defensive standouts as well, led by UCA senior cornerback Robert Rochell and APSU senior nickel back Kordell Jackson, two of the top defensive backs in the nation. Rochell (6-2, 195, Shreveport, La.) sealed last year’s victory with an interception at the UCA 29 with just 14 seconds remaining. Jackson is the preseason OVC defensive player of the year.
UCA leads the series 2-0 after last year’s road win. The Bears will extend their road trip by staying in Birmingham after the game to take on the FBS Blazers on Thursday night. UCA has put together a nine-game non-conference schedule that includes a record three FBS teams, as well as home-and-home series with Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky. The final game was added last Monday, a marquee matchup with three-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State in October in Fargo, N.D.
“We’ve committed to this fall season, we’re not going to look back,’ said Brown, a former record-setting quarterback for the Bears. “No matter what happens, whether it’s fall, whether it’s spring, there’s going to be an asterisk next to this season. It’s just the way it’s going to be.’
History of the FCS Kickoff:
The FCS Kickoff debuted in 2014 as a Week Zero game showcasing some of the top Football Championship Subdivision programs in the nation on ESPN.
2014 – Eastern Washington 56, Sam Houston State 35 (Cheney, Wash.)
2015 – Montana 38, North Dakota State 35 (Missoula, Mont.)
2016 – North Dakota State 24, Charleston Southern 17 OT (Fargo, N.D.)
2017 – Jacksonville State 27, Chattanooga 13 (Montgomery, Ala.)
2018 – North Carolina A&T 20, Jacksonville State 17 (Montgomery, Ala.)
2019 – Youngstown State 45, Samford 22 (Montgomery, Ala.)