UCA Bears begin defense of 2017 Southland title

Breylin Smith (UCA Athletics).jpg

The University of Central Arkansas Bears will return to what has become a comfortable portion of their schedule in recent years with the start of Southland Conference play this weekend.

The Bears, the defending SLC champions, open league play at Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. at Strawberry Stadium on ESPN+. UCA ran through the SLC slate undefeated at 9-0 last season and is 24-3 in conference play over the past three seasons, with a pair of SLC runnerup finishes.

““We feel like we have a good team,’ said UCA Coach Nathan Brown, who got his first victory as a head coach last Saturday. “We have a team that is resilient, we have a team with some talent, and we have a team that I think is going to be ready to go against Southeastern. But it’s going to be a tough challenge.We have a young team taking its first road trip, long bus ride, late kickoff. First conference game for some of these guys. But we’re excited about it. I think we will go down there and get after them on Saturday.’

The Bears (1-1) are coming off a 26-13 victory over FCS Murray State on a soggy night last Saturday at First Security Field at Estes Stadium. That followed a 38-27 loss at FBS Tulsa in the season opener.

The Bears rolled up 424 yards of offense last week in the win over Murray State, while holding the high-powered Racers to just 265, and just 68 in a scoreless second half. UCA redshirt sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith was a model of efficiency, completing 24 of 31 )77.4 percent) of his passes for 281 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to senior Lester Wells.

Defensively the Bears hounded MSU’s backfield all night, recording 10 tackles for loss and forcing three fumbles and intercepting a pass in the end zone. The Racers had six offensive possesions in the second half, ending in a fumble and four consecutive punts. UCA kept the ball away from MSU in the second half, particulary in the fourth quarter then the Racers had only 2:27 time of possession.

“We were up 20-6 and then we gave up a touchdown just before halftime and kind of gave them some momentum,’ said Brown. “But I was pleased to see our defense come out like they did in the second half. Like I told them coming out of halftime and that delay, in games like that, individual efforts don’t matter. The individual crazy good, spectacular plays are going to be minimized in conditions like that. So it’s going to take is who is the best team. Who is going to lean on each other the most.

“And I thought our guys did that. They were pulling on the same end of the rope. There were some up and down adverse situations and I thought we handled them to the best of our abilities and got a win against a good football team. And I’m excited about that.’

The Lions, who will be playing their first home game of the season, are 0-2 with FBS losses at Louisiana-Monroe (34-31) and at No. 11 LSU (31-0).

“They have a really good football team. Don’t let the 0-2 record fool you,’ said Brown. “Coach Frank Scelfo has a track record of putting good offenses and good quarterbacks on the field. So I would expect Southeastern to be a high-powered offense.

“They’ve got some really good talent. It all starts to me with their quarterback. Their quarterback is a transfer from Fresno State, a kid named Chason Virgil. He’s a Division I transfer that has a lot of ability. I would expect them to run the offense through him. He’s got dual threat ability but he throws the ball really well as well.

“Defensively, they have a lot of team speed. Big strong kids up front. The one thing Southeastern is always known for is their defensive backfield, having length, having athletic guys, and that’s no different this year. They can create a lot of problems with their ability to go get the football.’

The Bears have won the past three meetings with the Lions and lead the overall series 8-3. A year ago, UCA beat SLU 38-6 in Conway on the strength of a 21-point third quarter that stretched a 14-3 halftime lead to 35-3. The third touchdown of the period was a 38-yard fumble return by linebacker Raphael Garner, who led the Bears with nine tackles, including two tackles for loss, last Saturday against Murray State.

UCA’s top three tacklers through two games are all underclassmen. Junior safety Juan Jackson, who had an interception in the end zone last week, has 20 total tackles, followed by Garner, a junior from Thomasville, Ala., with 13. Sophomore nickel back Jackie Harvell also has 13 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Saturday’s game will be on The Bear 91.3 and The Point 94.1 with Justin Acri, Chris Kane and R.J. Hawk, as well as on ESPN+ with Jeff Palermo, Rene Nadeau and Julie Dobbs on the broadcast.

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