The No. 3 Sam Houston State University Bearkat football team dropped a tough game in Conway to the No. 12 University of Central Arkansas Bears 41-30 in a showdown between two Southland Conference powerhouses. The loss to UCA was the Kats’ first loss in conference play since Nov. 7, 2015.
The Bearkats’ troubles started early as they had a rocky start when senior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe was intercepted by UCA senior cornerback Tremon Smith just 1:21 into the game. The pick-six gave the Bears an early 7-0 lead. SHSU would never be able to grab a lead as UCA led from start to finish.
SHSU tried to answer the call as they got a big first down on their second drive following a great catch by senior wide receiver Yedidiah Louis on a pass deflected by Bears’ junior defensive back Michael Ware. Briscoe would take a shot downfield on the next play and connect with wide receiver Nathan Stewart who made a great catch to complete the 34-yard touchdown pass.
With the game tied 7-7, UCA’s offense would take the field for the first time. A big run by redshirt freshman running back Kierre Crossley followed by a Bearkat penalty would put UCA deep in SHSU territory. Senior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand would find junior running back Cedric Battle for a 25-yard touchdown pass as UCA took a 14-7 lead with 9:46 left in the first quarter.
The Bears’ defense made an impact on the next possession as Briscoe was sacked inside of his own five-yard line. After a timeout by head coach K.C. Keeler, Briscoe stood in the pocket on third down and 21 to find Stewart for a 41-yard pass play and a first down to keep the drive alive. The drive would eventually stall, however, and SHSU would be forced to punt.
The Bearkat defense would force a three-and-out as the offense set up shop with great field position at their own 47-yard line. SHSU would go for it on fourth down in the red zone and come up short, turning the ball over to UCA at their own 13-yard line with 2:58 remaining in the opening quarter.
Crossley’s legs would continue to give the Bearkat defense trouble as a pair of back-to-back runs got UCA into SHSU territory, but the drive would stall as UCA would be forced to punt. The first quarter would come to an end with UCA leading SHSU 14-7. This marked the first time the Bearkats trailed any Southland Conference opponent at the end of the first quarter in a game since 2014.
“Offensively, we didn’t get in great rhythm,” Keeler said. “When we subbed, the officials were really holding the clock. Everyone has a tempo to the game, and that was the tempo they were giving us.”
The Bearkats first drive of the second quarter would end with a punt from the shadow of their own end zone as UCA’s drive would start in SHSU territory. It would take just one snap for Hildebrand to find Battle for their second touchdown connection of the game, this time for 46 yards as the Bears pushed their lead to 21-7 with 14:34 to play in the second quarter.
After another drive stalled for SHSU, senior defensive lineman P.J. Hall would come up with a tackle in the backfield as he dropped Hildebrand for a loss of five yards. The defense would feed off of that momentum to force a three-and-out, and the Bearkats would start the next drive on their own 40-yard line.
The offense would continue to struggle, though, as SHSU would run three plays for a total of -3 yards and be forced to punt once again after a three-and-out of their own. The Bearkat defense would hold strong and continue to do what they could to stop UCA as they would force another Bears’ punt to get the ball back to Briscoe and the offense.
With offensive struggles lingering, SHSU would find themselves staring at a fourth down and one from their own 34-yard line with 7:30 left in the first half. Keeler would elect to leave his offense on the field, and SHSU would pick up the first down. That conversion would seem to awaken the Bearkats offense. The next two plays would yield back-to-back first downs, but the struggles would return and they would face a fourth down and ten. Briscoe once again stayed out there and surprisingly handed the ball off to senior running back Corey Avery who picked up 12 yards as he moved the chains inside the red zone. Despite a pair of fourth down conversions, SHSU would be forced to settle for a 36-yard field goal by junior kicker Tre Honshtein that would close the gap to 21-10.
UCA would respond quickly as Hildebrand would find freshman wide receiver Brandon Myers for a 74-yd touchdown pass. The Bears would need just two plays on the 39 second drive to push their lead out to 28-10 with 3:34 to go in the first half.
Sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Harris would find some space on the kickoff return to set up the Bearkats drive at their own 42-yard line. Briscoe would hook up with Stewart for a 39-yard pitch and catch for their second touchdown connection of the night. That quick strike would close the gap to 28-17 with 1:46 remaining in the half.
A pair of deep passes by Hildebrand would move the Bears down the field quickly and set up a first and goal for UCA at the SHSU five-yard line with :38 left. SHSU would make a strong goal line stand, and UCA junior kicker Matt Cummins would tack on a 17-yard field goal as the Bears would take a 31-17 lead over the Bearkats into halftime.
“James Madison put out the blueprint,” Briscoe said. “People want to beat us playing man coverage, that should be a slap in the face to us offensively. Tonight they made more plays than we did.”
Battle picked up right where he left off, returning the second half kickoff to the UCA 40-yard line to give the Bears offense good starting field position. The miscues would continue for SHSU as a pass interference penalty would push the Bears across midfield. The drive would end with a 33-yard field goal as UCA’s lead would swell to 34-17 with 10:06 in the third quarter.
The Bearkats would string together a series of positive plays on the next drive to move down the field, but the momentum would swing back to UCA as Smith would pick off a pass from Briscoe for his second interception of the game. The Bears would be unable to score any points off of the turnover, and SHSU would finally be able to take advantage of an opportunity.
After a pass interference call against UCA in the end zone kept the Bearkats drive alive, Briscoe connected with Stewart on a two-yard touchdown pass for Stewart’s third touchdown reception of the night. The extra point would narrow the deficit to 34-24 with 2:07 remaining in the third quarter. That touchdown pass by Briscoe would tie him with Brian Bell for the all-time SHSU career record of 84.
SHSU would field a punt from UCA to begin the fourth quarter down 34-24. The Bearkats would cap off a 10-play, 84-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown run by Avery. A missed extra point would keep the deficit at four points as SHSU still trailed 34-30 with 12:20 left in the game. The touchdown run by Avery made him the first 100-yard rusher in a game for the Bearkats this season.
SHSU would suffer a major miscue with 9:25 in the fourth quarter. As the Bearkats lined up to punt, the snap went over the punter’s head and UCA would take over on downs inside the SHSU 20 yard line. The Bears would extend their lead to 41-30 on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Hildebrand to senior wide receiver Brandon Cox.
SHSU would get the ball back with 3:45 left to play but would be unable to get anything going. The drive would last four plays for a total of -6 yards as the Bearkats would turn the ball over on downs at their own 40 yard line. With SHSU out of timeouts, UCA would turn to their ground game and sophomore running back Carlos Blackman would pick up the first down to seal the deal for the Bears.
“Hats off to Central Arkansas. I thought they played an outstanding game,” Keeler said. “I think our kids quite honestly heard all week about how we couldn’t be beaten because of what we did to Nicholls, and obviously that wasn’t so.”
SHSU could not overcome their two turnovers (both coming on interceptions by Briscoe) and their 12 penalties that set them back 135 yards. The Bearkats seemed to fall short in all three phases of the game as UCA ultimately pulled out the 41-30 victory, dropping the Bearkats to 3-1 overall.
“We got exposed in all phases of the game,” Briscoe said. “That’s what happens when you come in a little too loose and laid back and you get exposed and you get beat.”
SHSU turns its attention to the annual Battle of the Piney Woods against Stephen F. Austin next Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN3.