A whole season of blood, sweat, and tears. And it all comes down to one game.
Win and the Bearkats make their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. Lose, and they turn in their pads, and head home.
“We’re already in the playoffs,” Sophomore receiver Grant Finney said. “The game last week, and the one coming up, those are both playoff games. So we already have the mindset. We’re ready to go.”
The opponent they have to do it against is in the same situation as the Bearkats, so expect no mercy from the University of Central Arkansas Bears.
The Bearkats were in the same scenario last week against Northwestern State and handled them to the tune of 59-21.
Thanks to strong performances from running back Cory Avery and quarterback Jared Johnson, the Bearkats offense rolled for a record setting performance.
36 first downs is the most in (JUMP STARTS HERE) = SHSU history and the 668 total yards of offense ranks third best in Bearkat football history.
Cory Avery rushed for 197 yards and two touchdowns; one was a backbreaking 78 yard touchdown run that came early in the fourth quarter.
“That run Cory had lost me five dollars,” Keeler said. “I bet the tight end coach that he was gonna caught. He didn’t. No but really, He ran really well today. We’ve been running the ball really well as a team.”
Jared Johnson also had a monster performance going 21-32 with 275 yards and 3 touchdowns.
“He’s been playing really well,” Keeler said. “I was gonna let him play while he was hot. He never cooled down, so I never took him out.”
The defense also had a really good performance, allowing only three touchdowns, and only 7 of 16 third down conversions.
The most impressive defensive play came early in the first quarter, when Northwestern got a first and goal on the SHSU two yard line, and the Bearkat defense held strong four times and kept them out of the end zone.
“We just want to keep them out of the end zone,” Defensive end P.J. Hall said. “That is the most important thing. If we keep them from scoring, we put ourselves in a position to win the game.”
The Bearkats will have to continue all of these themes against a very strong opponent in UCA. The Bears boast a 7-1 record in conference play. They’ve gotten there through a mix of stout defense and a potent mix of players on offense.
The Bears offense has a balanced attack, with only 200 total yards separating their pass and run offense.
They are led on the ground by Blake Veasley and Dominique Thomas, both of whom are averaging over 85 yards per game on the ground.
“It’s huge,” Keeler said. “The ability to always have fresh legs in the game can break a defense. When they wear one down, you throw the other guy in, and the defense is more tired than he is.”
They are no slouches in the air either, with both Hayden Hildebrand and Taylor Reed throwing for over 150 yards a game.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Keeler said. “Having two guys who can throw the ball that well. One is a little more athletic, but not enough for us to have to significantly change the game plan for him.”
The cornerbacks have arguably their toughest challenge all year, with the 6’1 Desmond Smith. Smith is averaging 75 yards a game and 12 yards a catch.
“He’s a third rounder for sure,” Keeler said. “We have to be careful defending him. We can’t leave our cornerbacks on islands. There are some crafty things we can do to keep him off balance and make them not want to throw to him.”
In order for the Bearkats to win this game, the defense has to control the trenches and shut down Desmond Smith. The offense has to establish the run game and set up the passing later on.
“We have to stay focused,” Hall said. “If we do our jobs, fill our gaps, and make the plays, we can beat anybody.”
The game is at 6 pm in Conway.