HAMMOND, La. - The battle for first place in the Southland Conference went to the 14th-ranked University of Central Arkansas Bears on Saturday night as they grabbed a 34-14 victory over the Southeastern Louisiana Lions before a homecoming crowd of 6,795 at Strawberry Stadium.
Junior quarterback Wynrick Smothers threw three touchdown passes, including two to senior wide receiver Jesse Grandy, and the UCA defense grabbed two interceptions and recovered a fumble as UCA improved to 7-2 overall and 5-1 in conference play. The loss was the first in league play for the unranked Lions, who dropped to 3-5 overall and 3-1 in the SLC. The Bears are just in front of Sam Houston State (4-1), a team they beat last month, and finish up SLC play next week at home against Northwestern State.
"I'm really proud of our football team and our coaches,' said UCA head coach Clint Conque. "We had to endure some rough seas there in the third quarter but I thought we saw a really good football team respond to the challenge there, and show the resiliency we had to have to finish the game in the right way. I'm really proud of our players for their effort tonight.
"Jesse Grandy had a big night, and I thought Wynrick Smothers threw some nice balls. A lot of good things happened on offense but I thought the defense played exceptionally well tonight.'
After SLU scored twice in the third quarter, UCA's defense shut them down in the fourth period. The Lions' last four possessions ended in a punt, an interception, turn over on downs and a fumble.
The Bears took a 14-0 lead at halftime after senior running back Jackie Hinton scored on a 12-yard run in the first quarter and Smothers hit junior tight end Chase Dixon with a 7-yard touchdown pass in the second period. Smothers opened the second half with a 60-yard bomb to Grandy for a quick 21-0 lead just 55 seconds into the third quarter.
The Lions, who were 2-0 at home in SLC play this season, briefly grabbed the momentum with consecutive touchdown passes from Ole Miss transfer Nathan Stanley to Tony McCrea and Xavier Roberson to cut the margin to 21-14 in the final minute of the third quarter.
But the Bears, winners of four consecutive games, scored three times in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. Sophomore kicker Eddie Camara made a 26-yard field goal at the 11:53 mark. Smothers then found Grandy behind the SLU defense for the second time, this time for 48 yards and the clinching touchdown with 9:41 to play.
Seth Allison's second interception, and ensuing 43-yard return to the SLU 27, ended a Lions' drive with 5:39 left. After the teams traded punts, Camara added a 37-yard field goal, good for a 34-14 lead with 1:18 left. UCA then forced a fumble on the kickoff and UCA ran out the clock.
"Sometimes he's trying to do more than one job,' Conque said of Allison, "but when he does his job, he's a pretty darn good football player. He really read the quarterback's eyes and got into his coverage lanes and got a couple of really key interceptions.
UCA finished with 335 yards of total offense, with Smothers completing 21 of 33 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns. Grandy caught three passes for 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Stanley completed 20 of 35 for 191 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions, for the Lions.
Freshman cornerback Dillion Winfey and junior linebacker Justin Heard had nine tackles each for the Bears, while Allison added eight tackles to go with his two interceptions.
The Bears, who do not have an open date until Nov. 10, will play their 10th consecutive game next Saturday against Northwestern State with a shot at no worse than a conference co-championship on the line. The Demons are 4-4 overall and 2-2 in SLC play.
"We have to take care of our business and focus on the University of Central Arkansas and our preparation,' said Conque. "We obviously need a big crowd over in Estes Stadium next week. It will be one of the bigger ballgames we've played in our stadium this year, and there is certainly a lot on the line.'