University of Central Arkansas quarterback Wynrick Smothers was tossed into choppy waters for his second career start, and coach Clint Conque was pleased with how he guided the ship.
In Saturday’s game against Ole Miss, Smothers, a junior, completed 25 of 32 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns, craftily leading the Bears to a 20-14 lead at halftime that silenced a crtowd in excess of 50,000 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The Rebels outscored the Bears 35-7 the second half for a 49-27 victory.
Smothers’ first career start was last year against Arkansas State, another NCAA Division I FCS member, replacing senior Nathan Dick, who was held out because of the effects of a concussion.
“I’m not sure, in UCA history, that we have called on a young man to start his first two games at quarterback in such a position as Wynrick Smothers,” said Conque at Tuesday’s weekly Bearbackers luncheon. “Last year, in an emergency situation with a week to prepare, he went against one of the best teams (ASU) we have faced in my 13 years here. Now, this year, as ‘the guy’ at quarterback, his next start is in an SEC stadium with a crowd of more than 50,000 and both those games were televised. That’s about as tough as it has been for a UCA quarterback in 100-plus years of our history. And Wynrick responded. He made some mistakes that we’ll get fixed, but he was phenomenal. I have a lot of concerns this year but quarterback his not one of them.”
One of the plays Smothers didn’t make still was encouraging to Conque. With UCA trailing 28-20, he overthrew Al Lasker, who was deep behind the Ole Miss defense, for what seemed to be a sure touchdown.
“It was tough for him to gauge the depth of his throw with No. 92 coming right at him ready to smack him between the eyes,” Conque said. “He had to release quickly and he ended overthrowing Lasker, who had beaten the defender by 12 yards. He looked down the barrel of the gun several times. He was sacked four times and knocked down several others. But he kept getting up and making plays.”
But Conque said the key play of the game occurred on UCA’s first possession of the second half, facing third and one at the 29. Smothers hit Brett Soft on a sideline route and instead of falling forward for the first down, Soft attempted a juke and was stopped short of the first down as the Rebel defenders closed in.
“The young man was trying to make a play,” Conque said. “The energy in the stadium and on the sideline and the momentum changed immediately. They took the ball and went down and scored (74 yards, 10 plays). Everything changed. We could never get back that momentum.
“So here’s the bottom line, when you are playing people who are a little better and deeper and you get third and short, you’ve got to make it against those teams. We didn’t a couple of times.”
There were also three instances Ole Miss converted on third and long and continued touchdown drives.
“Just like with the short-yard situations on offense, you’ve got to make those third-and-long stops on defense in that type of game,” Conque said. “If you don’t, they start wearing you down and that’s what happened. Ole Miss had something to say about the second half, too. Their linemen started leaning on us and the more snaps you have to play, that leaning starts to wear you down. They didn’t start out physical but they finished physically. Once they got the lead, they saw the blood in the water.”
Conque noted that six of his players made their first collegiate starts against Ole Miss, the first SEC team UCA has ever played. Twelve others played their first collegiate game against the Rebels.
He was most pleased that the Bears matched an opening touchdown by the Rebels with a touchdown of their own, then did it a second time to pull within 14-13. They had the Ole Miss defense on its heels as they closed the half with a touchdown and a blocked field goal.
“Our kids didn’t flinch in an SEC setting,” Conque said. “Our kids felt they belonged in that game and in that environment. We are extremely disappointed we didn’t win the football game. We prepared well, traveled well and had ourselves in a position to win but we didn’t finish.”
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Smothers was the obvious choice on offense. Linebacker Rojae Jackson, the leading tackler, was selected by the coaches as the top defensive player. Kevin Buford, who punted for a 41.3 average, was the special teams player of the week.
INJURIES: Jackson injured a shoulder in the second half, but it’s possible he may play Saturday agaisnt Murray State. There were no other injuries except for the normal bumps and bruises.
SATURDAY: The Bears are on the road again, playing Murray State at Murray, Ky. The Racers lost 69-3 last week to Florida State.
“They began the season as a ranked team in FCS,” Conque said. “That score is a little deceptive because Florida State is one of the best teams in the country and they fell behind so much early, I understand they (the Racers) played their 3’s and 4’s extensively the second half.”