A dark cloud was cast over Central Arkansas’ 31-0 win over Nebraska-Kearney on Saturday with the loss of fifth-year senior quarterback Wynrick Smothers to a broken ankle.
Smothers, the reigning offensive player of the year, ran off the field on one leg after converting a third-and-1 on a 10-yard scamper midway through the third quarter.
The injury marks the end of Smothers’ career at Central Arkansas, and adds to a growing list of season-ending injuries the Bears have endured this season.
“Of all the things he’s poured into the university, to our football program, we know injuries are part of the game, but that one is tough,” coach Clint Conque said. “We’ve got a young man and a family that is really hurting right now.”
Prior to knowing the extent of Smothers’ injury, sophomore tailback Blake Veasley, who finished with 57 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries, said it’s always hard to see a fellow player go down with an injury.
“Especially a guy like (Wynrick),” Veasley said. “He’s our front guy, he’s our leader going into battle week after week.”
Smothers finished 22 of 34 for 177 yards, and added 28 yards and a touchdown on four carries.
Moving forward, Conque said a decision on next week’s starter against Lamar will be made later in the week.
“We’ll have to come back in (Sunday), see where we are and circle the wagons,” Conque said. “We’ll always have two quarterbacks, and in this case three, prepared.”
Ryan Howard, Taylor Reed and Jacoby Walker all received snaps at quarterback during Saturday’s victory, and Howard and Reed both attempted multiple passes.
Reed said it was difficult to see Smothers suffer an injury, but knows this will mean more playing time for him in the near future.
“Ever since I got to campus, (Wynrick has) taken me under his wing and showed me the ropes, and showed me how we practice, prepare and play,” Reed said. “I definitely hate to see (the injury) happen.”
Central Arkansas was not immediately affected by Smothers’ exit, as Howard entered at quarterback and put the finishing touches on an 11-play, 91-yard touchdown drive.
Howard connected with Damien Watts on a 32-yard pass before finding tight end Chase Dixon in the corner of the end zone on an 8-yard pass to extend the Bears’ lead to 24-0.
The junior quarterback finished four of eight for 47 yards and one touchdown, while Reed completed four of six passes for 63 yards, and added 22 yards on four carries.
In all, 12 receivers caught 30 passes for 287 yards and one touchdown. Freshman Jatavious Wilson led the team in catches, 6, while sophomore Courtney Whitehead led the team in yards, 83.
The rest of the Bears team was not immune to the injury bug Saturday as sophomore defensive end Derek Floyd and redshirt freshman receiver Desmond Smith were also helped from the field. The full extent of the injuries will not be known until later in the week, Conque said.
Central Arkansas was able to overcome the injuries and a slow start from the offense with the help of a shutout performance from the defense, the first since October 2009 against Northwestern State.
The Bears allowed 169 total yards of offense to the Division II Nebraska-Kearney Lopers, one week after surrendering 59 points and 595 yards in a blowout loss to McNeese State.
The defense’s starting 11 featured three new starters from the previous week in Floyd, junior linebacker Zach Bush and freshman safety Tirell Wellmaker.
“I thought Bush played physical, Wellmaker played physical and Floyd was playing well,” Conque said. “That’s only going to help us moving forward that those guys got in.”
The defense jump-started a 14-point third quarter by the Bears offense when Bobby Watkins intercepted a Lopers pass on the opening drive of the second half, and returned it to the UNK 25.
Willie Matthews scored from six yards out to give the Bears a 17-0 lead. Following a Lopers punt, Howard’s 8-yard pass to Dixon gave Central Arkansas a 24-0 lead, which it would carry into the fourth quarter.
Veasley added the last score of the night on an 8-yard run to extend the Central Arkansas lead to 31-0 with 14:30 remaining.
The first half was highlighted by a less-than-stellar performance from the Bears offense, paired with a dominant 30 minutes of play from the defense.
Central Arkansas received the opening kickoff and drove 83 yards on 18 plays on its way to a 21-yard field goal by Eddie Camara.
After a three-and-out from Nebraska-Kearney, Central Arkansas went 58 yards on seven plays, as Smothers scored the only touchdown of the first half on a 7-yard run.
After gaining 194 yards in the first quarter, the Bears managed only 40 yards in the second quarter, and saw their four possessions end in three punts and one turnover on downs.
Central Arkansas returns to Southland Conference play Oct. 19 at Lamar in Beaumont, Texas.
Senior linebacker Justin Heard will be eligible to play against the Cardinals after serving a three-game suspension.
“It’ll be awesome to get Heard back, and we should be able to get Love back,” Conque said.
Conque said he was encouraged with the improvement of Dezmin Lewis, who left last week’s game with an injury, but did not say for certain if the junior receiver would return against Lamar.
“But tonight is a tough night,” Conque said. “We lost one of our all-time great players. That win came with a pretty significant price.”