CONWAY -- The University of Central Arkansas is long familiar with challenges provided by Sam Houston State, but tonight's game will come with a new twist.
During recent seasons, UCA's first concern when it considered Sam Houston State has been with the ways to stop the Bearkats' high-scoring offense, particularly from 2015-18, when they led the Southland Conference in scoring and total offense.
Sam Houston State's offense remains potent, but the team's strength this season is a dominating defense. UCA (5-2, 3-1) will face the Bearkats (5-3, 4-1) at 6 p.m. today at Estes Stadium.
"I've been watching defenses in this league for a while, and this defense that Sam's about to bring up here is as good as any of the top defenses that we've played in the last few years," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "They're very athletic. They have a bunch of players who really attack the football."
The Bearkats have allowed an average of 16.1 points a game, the fewest in the Southland by 9.9 points. By comparison, UCA and Nicholls State are tied for third in the conference for fewest points allowed with an average of 29.1.
Sam Houston State has allowed an average of 308.6 yards a game. Lamar is second in the Southland with an average of 380.4. UCA is seventh among the conference's 11 schools, having surrendered an average of 435.1.
"The first thing that stands out is their defensive front," UCA sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith said. "They have several guys on the inside who are very good. They use great technique. You can tell they're very well-coached. They play hard. They play fast."
Brown said senior linebacker Hunter Brown, a transfer from West Virginia, and junior defensive lineman Trace Mascorro were among the notables for Sam Houston State.
"They just have a lot of guys," Brown said. "They have a lot of good depth that they can roll in. Teams are struggling to block these guys."
Mascorro has four sacks and leads the Bearkats with 11.5 tackles for loss.
Smith said Sam Houston State will challenge him and UCA's offensive line.
"Our line knows that," Smith said. "They know it's a big game, just like we all know it's a big game, but we're excited and we're prepared for it."
Sam Houston State will take the Estes Stadium field having come off its top defensive performance of the season. Last Saturday, the Bearkats traveled to Nicholls State and returned home to Huntsville, Texas, with a 17-0 victory that knocked the Colonels out of the outright lead in the Southland standings.
UCA lost 34-14 at Nicholls State on Oct. 5.
"That was just a phenomenal performance against Nicholls," Brown said.
"They played a big-time game," Smith said. "They're really good on that side of the ball."
UCA's defense also has been playing well of late.
Though the Bears lost three starters and their top contributors on the defensive line from last season, Brown said before the season began that he was confident the revised version would play well.
Brown spoke of the unit's progression through the first few games. After the last two contests, he said high quality has arrived.
UCA had 10 sacks through the first five games. In the last two -- victories over McNeese State and Northwestern (La.) State -- the Bears had nine.
"We're doing a good job of getting to the quarterback," Brown said.
Ten players have sacks for UCA this season, led by junior defensive end J.W. Jones with 2.5 and freshman defensive end Marquez Casey with 2.
"J.W. Jones is really doing a good job," Brown said. "He's consistent and he's really starting to come into his own."
Junior defensive end Nathan Grant has one sack and leads the Bears with six tackles for loss.
"Teams spend a lot of time chipping and doubling Nathan Grant on the boundary," Brown said. "He gets a little frustrated at times because he's a proven player in this league, but it's opening up other guys to make plays."
SAM HOUSTON STATE AT CENTRAL ARKANSAS
WHEN 6 p.m.
WHERE Estes Stadium, Conway
RECORDS UCA 5-2, 3-1 Southland Conference; Sam Houston State 5-3, 4-1
COACHES Nathan Brown (11-6 in second season at UCA and overall); K.C. Keeler (57-20 in sixth season at Sam Houston State, 231-93-1 in 26th overall)
SERIES Sam Houston State leads 7-6
LAST YEAR Sam Houston State won 34-31 in overtime.
RADIO KUCA-FM, 91.3, Conway; KKPTFM, 94.1, Little Rock
WHEN UCA HAS THE BALL Sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith starts the Bears’ offense. He has completed 66.3% of his passes this season for 2,009 yards and 16 touchdowns with 7 interceptions. He has used a total of 15 receivers in 2019, including seven with 10 or more catches. Sophomore Lujuan Winningham leads UCA’s receivers with 46 catches 779 yards and 8 touchdowns. Senior running back Carlos Blackman leads UCA with 394 rushing yards. He also is his team’s second-leading receiver with 38 catches for 258 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he has completed 2 of 2 passes for 84 yards and 2 touchdowns.
WHEN SAM HOUSTON STATE HAS THE BALL The Bearkats’ offense starts with sophomore starting quarterback Ty Brock and sophomore reserve Eric Schmid, who have combined through 8 games to pass for a total of 2,082 yards and 15 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Senior receiver Nathan Stewart is Sam Houston State’s top target with 38 catches 641 yards and 6 touchdowns. Sophomore running back Donovan Williams leads the Bearkats with 536 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns. He averages 4.3 yards a carry. Junior Kyran Jackson has rushed for 286 yards and averages 4.8 yards a carry.
WHAT’S AT STAKE A victory would keep UCA’s Southland Conference losses at one and still in good shape for an outright or shared league title.
Sports on 10/26/2019
Print Headline: UCA geared up for tough Sam Houston defense