CONWAY -- In terms of its immediate impact on his team's final regular-season standing, UCA Coach Nathan Brown said he understands this is more than just another game.
UCA (8-3, 6-2 Southland Conference) is set to play the Incarnate Word Cardinals (5-6, 4-4) at Benson Stadium in San Antonio today with kickoff scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Central.
A victory would give UCA a co-Southland Conference championship and make it a virtual lock for a spot in the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs. A loss would mean no more than a three-way tie for second place and a significantly diminished chance of postseason play.
"A lot of coaches like to say, 'Well, it's just the next game. It doesn't matter who the opponent is,' '' Brown said. "I take more of the approach that there's going to be an elephant in the room no matter what, so we talk about how important the game is, but I tell them that they have earned the right to be in a championship game. We know we can control our destiny with a win [tonight]."
Even with a loss, UCA Athletic Director Brad Teague said he is confident the Bears will have a shot to make the playoffs.
"We have high confidence that, win or lose, we have a resume that would get us in," said Teague who previously served on the FCS Division I Football Championship Committee and was its chairman last year.
A playoff appearance would be its UCA's fifth overall since it began FCS play in 2006 and its third in the last four seasons.
"We know what we're playing for," Brown said. "Our level of intensity should be ratcheted up a little more."
Brown has been with UCA as either a player or a coach since 2005 when he helped lead the school to the NCAA Division II playoff quarterfinals as a freshman quarterback. This is his second season as UCA's head coach. In his first, UCA went into its final game on a three-game losing streak, with no shot at the playoffs, and won 16-7 over Abilene Christian.
Brown has used that victory to remind his players about how important final games are to everyone involved, regardless of playoff possibilities.
"Sometimes the scariest teams are the teams that are playing for pride," Brown said. "When you play a team like Incarnate Word, and they're backed into a corner, and all they're playing for is the name across their chest, sometimes that's the toughest game to play in. We're going to get their best effort no matter what."
UCA has followed Brown, his staff, and sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith since summer drills began. Through its first 10 games, it relied heavily on Smith's passing, which now total 3,210 yards and 26 touchdowns, but UCA had rushed for an average of a mere 64.8 yards a game.
In UCA's last game, a 30-7 home victory over Stephen F. Austin, junior running back Kierre Crossley, senior Carlos Blackman, and an offensive line manned by one senior, one junior, and three underclassmen, led the Bears to a season-high 263 rushing yards.
"We know you have to run the ball to win championships," Blackman said.
"I knew with what their defense did, that we would have to run the ball to have success on Saturday night," Brown said. "They do a good job of not letting you get behind them, so we were going to have to run to score points, even if that's not something we've been accustomed to this year, but we did a great job."
UCA held Stephen F. Austin to 37 rushing yards and a total of 232, with 3 fumble recoveries, 1 interception, and 9 tackles for lost yards, including a season-high 5 sacks. It was enough to ensure confidence against Incarnate Word and perhaps beyond, Brown said.
"That was great for this time of year, mid-November, when your body is really hurting," Brown said. "The grind of the season is wearing on you, and to go in and physically control a game like that is so positive and ought, ought, to give us a lot of confidence going forward."
Central Arkansas at Incarnate Word
WHEN 6:30 p.m. Central
WHERE Benson Stadium, San Antonio
RECORDS UCA 7-3, 6-2 Southland Conference; Incarnate Word 5-6, 4-4
COACHES Nathan Brown (14-8 in second season at UCA and overall); Eric Morris (11-11 in second season at Incarnate Word and overall)
SERIES UCA leads 2-1
LAST SEASON Incarnate Word won 40-27
RADIO KUCA-FM, 91.3, in Conway; KKPT-FM, 94.1, in Little Rock
WHEN UCA HAS THE BALL Sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith leads UCA's offense. Since Lujuan Winningham broke his left arm and was lost for the season during a 29-25 victory over Sam Houston State on Oct. 26, his top receivers have been freshman Tyler Hudson and senior running back Carlos Blackman. Hudson has 43 catches for 778 yards and 9 touchdowns and Blackman 45 for 331 yards and 4 touchdowns. ... UCA has relied on its passing game through most of the season, but in its 30-7 victory over Stephen F. Austin on Saturday, junior Kierre Crossley and Blackman emerged as leaders on offense. Crossley rushed 11 times for 94 yards and Blackman 16 times for 83 yards and 1 touchdown.
WHEN INCARNATE WORD HAS THE BALL Sophomore quarterback Jon Copeland has led the team's balanced offense with 3,003 yards passing and 20 touchdowns. Copeland has thrown to seven receivers who have caught 22 or more passes this season, led by sophomore running back Ameer King with 38 catches for 327 yards and 5 touchdowns. Senior receiver Kam Williams has caught 35 passes for 514 yards and 4 touchdowns. Junior running back Kevin Brown leads the Cardinal rushers with 635 yards. King has rushed for 484 yards and junior Keyondrick Philio for 321 and a team-high 9 touchdowns.
WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR UCA A victory would put UCA in a two-way tie for first place in the final Southland Conference regular-season standings.
Sports on 11/22/2019
Print Headline: Bears very aware of playoff stakes