The king is not dead in the Southland Conference. But he is wounded.
The University of Central Arkansas Bears tranquilized the defending champion Sam Houston State Bearkats in the first half Saturday night and held on for a 41-30 victory at Estes Stadium over the No. 3-ranked Bearkats in coach Steve Campbell’s greatest victory in four years as a head coach.
It was one of the greatest victories in recent UCA history as the 11th-ranked Bears (3-1, 2-0) caused a shift in the landscape of NCAA FCS football. It was the highest-ranked team to fall to UCA in its Division I history.
The Bearkats (3-0, 1-1), the dominant team in the league the last three seasons, had a 12-game winning streak broken and trailed after the first quarter in an SLC game for the first time
And a game that featured several home run plays was decided by the football equivalent of a Bill Buckner play.
The Bears, who led 34-17 in the fourth quarter, were holding on in the final minutes. The defense was gassed and against the ropes after a stirring effort in thwarting the high-powered Bearkat offense, which ran 89 plays to UCA’s 65.
SHSU attempted to punt from its 40 and the snap went right through the hands of punter Cameron Hearn. That gave the Bears’ possession at the SHSU 17. Hayden Hildebrand threaded the needle and Brandon Cox made the catch in the corner of the end zone that gave the Bears the 41-30 cushion.
Hildebrand completed 13 of 25 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns. The UCA defense kept his counterpart, Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe out of rhythm. They were able to get pressure with a three- or four-man rushed and supplemented that with aggressive secondary play by mixing up coverages.
The Bears took Sam Houston State’s playbook and energized themselves the first half.
The Bearkats, normally the quick-strike, big—play team, ran 50 plays the first half and trailed 31-17.
UCA had seven plays that gained 25 yards or more, five of those 35 or more.
In addition to Tre Smith’s 42-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first series, the Bears had touchdown drives of 86 yards in four plays (25-yard pass from Hayden Hildebrand to Battle); 46 yards in one play (Hildebrand to Battle); 75 yards in two plays (75-yard pass Hildebrand to Brandon Myers).
“The key for us was to be able to get out of these guys,” said Campbell. “You do not want to be playing from behind on these guys. Then, we kept making plays and making plays.”
But the biggest drive (84 yards eight plays) may have resulted in three points (a 17-yard field goal by Matt Cummins). That featured 80 yards in receptions by Brandon Cox (35) and Roman Gordon (45) and followed a 58-yard drive to a 36-yard field goal by Tre Honshtein that drew Sam Houston within 28-17 with 1:46 in the half.
Instead of running out the clock, the Bears responded with gunslinger boldness with the two deep passes that helped set the halftime lead at 31-17.
After a 37-yard kickoff return by Battle to start the second half, the Bears drove 44 yards to a 33-yard field goal by Cummins to make it a three-score game at 34-17 with 9:53 left in the third.
Then, the Bearkats unleashed running back Corey Avery, who rushed for 134 yards, and high-jumping receiver Nathan Stewart, who had 134 yards on eight receptions and three touchdowns.
The UCA front and secondary never allowed the game’s most high-profile gunslinger, Grimsley, to get into rhythm. He was 14 of 30 with for 239 yards, two touchdowns and one interception the first half.
The Bears stuffed the Bearkats on fourth down with the run on fourth and one at their 15.
Cummins’ 33-yard field goal after Battle’s second-half kickoff return gave the Bears a 34-17 lead with 10:06 left in the third.
UCA goes on the road next week against Houston Baptist.