CONWAY, Ark. _ The University of Central Arkansas Bears turned the tables on the nation's fourth-ranked offense on a cold Saturday night at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
The 10th-ranked Bears (9-2), with their ticket already punched for the Division I Playoffs, strengthened their resume with a convincing 48-30 victory over the high-flying and 25th-ranked Eastern Illinois Panthers. UCA held EIU's offense to just 297 yards, 202 yards under its season average of 499. The Panthers, winners of four straight to win the Ohio Valley Conference title, were averaging 40 points per game.
UCA controlled the ball and the clock the entire game, running a season-high 99 plays to EIU's 62. The Panthers entered the game as one of the fastest offenses in the nation, averaging 87.6 offensive plays per game and running more than 100 plays in three games. After taking a 24-23 halftime lead, the Bears played keep-away in the second half. The Panthers had the ball for just 3:09 in the third quarter and 4:46 in the fourth.
UCA junior quarterback Wynrick Smothers was a model of efficiency, completing 35 of 49 passes (71 percent), both career highs, for 334 yards and four touchdowns. The Bears finished with 457 yards of total offense and won their sixth consecutive game to possibly earn a bye in next week'sopening round of the playoffs. The NCAA Division I Playoff field will be announced at 12:30 Sunday on ESPNU.
EIU (7-4) took the early lead on a 17-yard pass from Jimmy Garappolo to Chris Wright on its first possession. UCA answered with Smothers' first touchdown pass, a 26-yarder to senior running back Jackie Hinton at the 5:16 mark of the first quarter. Sophomore Eddie Camara added a career-long 48-yard field goal on UCA's next possession to give the Bears a 10-7 lead.
Garappolo, one of the top quarterbacks in EIU history, found Wright again from 37 yards for a 13-10 lead, but UCA blocked the point after. The Bears, who lost three fumbles, all in the first half, took the lead for good on a 1-yard run by senior Terence Bobo with 10 minutes left in the first half. Smothers added another touchdown pass of 14 yard to sophomore Dezmin Lewis before halftime.
Cameron Berra made a 23-yard field goal and Garoppolo passed 14 yards to Erik Lora, who broke the FCS single-season receptions record with 9 catches for 52 yards to give him 124 on the season. That brought the Panthers within 24-23 at halftime. But UCA dominated the second half, outscoring EIU 24-7 and allowing only 127 yards of offense the rest of the way.
Hinton added a 1-yard rushing touchdown and Camara connected from 25 yards for his second field goal. Smothers found Grandy with a short pass that the senior from Pine Bluff turned into a 37-yard touchdown, good for a 41-23 advantage. Wright got behind the UCA defense for a 74-yard touchdown pass from Garappolo with 8:04 remaining but UCA answered with a 6-yard scoring pass from Smothers to tight end Chase Dixon to set the final.
Grandy, Lewis and Hinton caught seven passes and a touchdown each, while Hinton led all rushers with 87 yards on 20 carries. EIU's Jake Walker, who entered the game with nearly 1,000 rushing yards on the season, finished with 66 on 17 carries. Garappolo completed 19 of 33 passes for 228 yards and 4 touchdowns.
UCA now leads the career series with EIU 2-0, with both wins coming over Top 25 teams by scores of 37-7 and 48-30. The Bears are now 11-0 on "The Stripes" at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
The Bears, the Southland Conference champions, have won nine games for the second consecutive season and will also be making their second consecutive trip to the playoffs.