When the Central Arkansas Bears step onto “The Stripes” for the final time of 2021, it will be taking on a familiar opponent.
The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, who shared Southland Conference allegiances with UCA since 2006 until this year, are coming into Estes Stadium more talented than they’ve been in some time.
SFA is 6-3 on the season, and are coming off a 31-17 win over then No. 19 Eastern Kentucky.
However, one area that UCA coach Nathan Brown points to as a weakness is how the Lumberjacks have played on the road.
“They’re 1-2 on the road,” he said. “They haven’t handled the road necessarily well, and one of those losses, Texas Tech, was a close game (28-22). The other to Jacksonville State (28-24) and then they played in a neutral site where they lost by one to Sam Houston (21-20). Now I’ll say that was the weekend after we played Sam Houston. We knocked the quarterback out and he was out of that game. So Sam Houston played with a backup quarterback.”
The lone road win was a 37-20 win over winless new Western Athletic Conference foe Dixie State.
Though they haven’t won close games on the road, the team is winning games at home, which has helped in a large way toward their 6-3 record.
Brown said the team has a lot of length, which poses a challenge for UCA.
“You look on their defensive front and they’re long and physical,” he said. “They’ve got 28 stacks on the year. Their scheme is very sound on defense. They’ve got good size and length also in the secondary. So you look at their length and their athleticism and that’s what you know jumps off the page at you. They’ve done a great job in recruiting.”
Offensively, SFA has a potent passing combination in junior quarterback Trae Self and sophomore wide receiver Xavier Gipson.
Self has thrown for 2,435 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions by completing 189 of 291 passes.
Gibson has accounted for 1,003 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
“On offense, their quarterback’s one of the more efficient quarterbacks we will play all year,” Brown said. “He’s completed a lot of his passes. He’s a kid who doesn’t throw the ball to the opposing team very much, and then they have the best receiver we’ll play all year in Xavier Gipson. He is a very, very talented player. The same recruiting class is Tyler Hudson. Those two have gone kind of head-to-head with Southland and then this year, obviously they’re two of the top receivers in the country.”
Last week in a 63-3 win over Texas Wesleyan, Bears sophomore wide receiver Tyler Hudson broke and set a new UCA career receiving record, passing Desmond Smith on a 93-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.
Hudson now has 2,985 receiving yards and is tied for second in career touchdown receptions with Ron Mallett at 26.
Not only did Hudson break the career receiving record, there were other things throughout last week’s game that Brown hopes to build off for Saturday’s matchup.
“Breylin [Smith] threw for five touchdowns in a half,” he said. “Lujuan [Winningham] with another 80-yard touchdown. There were a couple of guys getting their first catches and first-career touchdown and the first-career interception. So, there was a lot of stuff happening on Saturday that we’re excited about something we can build on. Hopefully, the young players got a taste of what college football’s about. They’ll help us in the future.”
But, the attention has turned to a talented SFA team that Brown credits to a solid coaching staff.
“I just think they’re one of the more well-coached teams with coach [Colby] Carthel and his staff,” Brown said. “They run sound schemes and all three phases of the game so they’re not going to give you too many opportunities to take advantage of them. And that’s a testament to their coaching staff.”
The Bears will look to continue SFA’s disappointing road record Saturday as the two teams kick off for UCA’s Senior Day at 4 p.m.
The game will be broadcast on 91.3 FM, 94.1 FM and ESPN+.