No. 13 UCA earns playoff bid, share of SLC title
CONWAY, Ark. - The 13th-ranked University of Central Arkansas Bears punched their ticket to the NCAA Division I Playoffs for the second consecutive year Saturday night with a 35-14 Homecoming and Southland Conference Television victory over the Northwestern State Demons at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
Led by junior quarterback Wynrick Smothers, who threw four touchdown passes and ran for another, the Bears (8-2, 6-1) sewed up at least a share of the Southland Conference championship. UCA owns the tiebreaker over the only other team that could finish with one loss, Sam Houston State, and therefore UCA earns the league’s automatic bid to the playoffs which begin Nov. 24.
UCA reached the playoffs last season as an at-large team, but the Bears’ 24-20 win over the Bearkats back on Sept. 22 assures UCA of making the field as the league champion after hoisting the SLC Trophy in a jubilant postgame ceremony.
The Bears, winners of five straight games since their only SLC loss of the season at Stephen F. Austin, rolled up 423 yards of total offense and averaged 6.7 yards per play. The UCA defense recovered a pair of fumbles and also intercepted a pass and held the Demons (4-5, 2-3) to just 305 yards of offense and 3.7 yards per play.
UCA ran out to a 28-14 halftime lead on the strength of three of Smothers’ scoring passes. The junior from Destrehan, La., threw a 20-yarder to senior receiver Brett Soft to open the scoring at the 11:28 mark of the first quarter. After Northwestern State tied it on a 3-yard run by quarterback Brad Henderson, Smothers broke off a 57-yard touchdown run, his third rushing touchdown of the season, for a 14-7 lead. He then hit senior Dominique Croom for a 33-yard score to open the second quarter.
Henderson found the end zone again for the Demons, from 1 yard out with 9:32 left in the half but Croom was on the receiving end of Smothers’ third touchdown pass from 26 yards for the 28-14 halftime margin.
Smothers, who was 18 of 27 for 225 yards and 4 touchdowns, threw his last one to sophomore Dezmin Lewis, who made a diving catch in the end zone to put the Bears up 35-14 with 4:06 to play. Smothers also finished with a career-high 97 rushing yards and totaled 322 yards of total offense. Lewis and Jesse Grandy caught five passes each, while Croom had 3 for 64 yards and two scores.
Smothers was named the winner of the L.B. Jackman Award which goes to the outstanding player in the Homecoming game.
Northwestern State managed only 67 yards of total offense in the second half and punted on seven straight possessions, with the eighth ending in an interception by UCA’s Dominique Brown with 4:32 to play in the game. Senior linebacker Rojae Jackson and junior linebacker Justin Heard topped the Bears with 10 tackles each. UCA, eighth in the nation in tackles for loss, recorded 10 more Saturday, including three by senior noseguard Justin Williams.
The Bears, who have played 10 consecutive weeks without a break, have an open date next Saturday before finishing their regular-season schedule at home against Eastern Illinois on Nov. 17.