Robert Rochelle has fond memories of playing Austin Peay a year ago.
The University of Central Arkansas senior cornerback had the game-sealing interception against the Governors, completing a fourth-quarter comeback that had the Bears score two touchdowns in the final 12 minutes to win 24-16 at Clarksville, Tenn.
Now, as UCA -- ranked No. 11 in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision -- prepares to face No. 13 Austin Peay today at 8 p.m. Central in Montgomery, Ala., Rochelle and the Bears hope for a similar result. This time, there will be a lot more eyes watching the Bears and Governors as the game will be broadcast on ESPN as the first college football contest of the 2020 season.
"We know we've got a tough opponent," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "We've got a tough schedule set up in 2020. And I think Austin Peay will be as good as any we play. It's going to be fun. They know us like we know them."
Last year's matchup was a good one, which is a large part why it was chosen as the FCS kickoff game this year. The spotlight has certainly increased over the last month, with the coronavirus pandemic leading to the cancellation or delay of a host of games, allowing the Bears and Governors to be the only game on opening week. UCA has been following covid-19 protocols closely and recorded two positive tests out of 166 football personnel tested Wednesday, 72 hours before the game in accordance with NCAA guidelines.
Now, with testing complete, college football fans will get a glimpse at what the 2020 season will look like.
For UCA, last year's comeback victory went a long way in how they performed the rest of the season.
"It changed us in a multitude of ways," Rochelle said. "It showed us that we can play as a team when we want to. It showed us we have to come out faster, instead of playing so late. You can't play late games against anybody. It just showed us that we can rally together when it's time to. Hard times don't break us."
Junior quarterback Breylin Smith played a key role in last year's victory, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns, including the eventual game-winner with 1:46 remaining.
"When I think about this game, I think about the battle we were in," Smith said. "They're a great football team, they have a great defense, they have a lot of great players, and those are the games you want to play in. Just being a competitor, you always want to play the best. They were one of the better teams we played."
With the two teams being familiar with each other, Brown expects it to be one of UCA's toughest matchups this season, despite a schedule that includes three FBS teams and defending FCS national champion North Dakota State.
"You've played an opponent, you've seen their strengths, kind of understand their weaknesses -- Austin Peay is a team that doesn't have a lot of weaknesses," said Brown, entering his third year as head coach. "If you watched them on film, especially defensively, they're just so solid up front. You look at their front seven, and it starts with Josephus Smith in the middle."
Smith, a senior defensive lineman, is expected to be taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. Last year, he was an all-Ohio Valley Conference first-team selection, totaling 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Along with senior defensive back Kordell Jackson, Smith will be UCA's biggest challenge offensively.
"That kid, [Smith's] not big in stature, but man, he plays as hard as anybody I've watched over the last couple years at that nose tackle, defensive tackle position," Brown said. "And their bell cow for sure is Kordell Jackson. That kid will be one of the better players we play all year at that nickel back position. Just a true NFL prospect. A kid that gets the most out of his body. Again, not a huge kid with stature, he's not going to 'wow' you getting off the bus, but he 'wows' you with his play."
Junior quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall likely will start for the Governors after suffering a season-ending injury on the ninth play of the game against UCA a year ago. Oatsvall, who has thrown for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns in his career, has "got very, very top-end capability to being a great quarterback," Brown said.
Austin Peay's biggest challenge might be on the sidelines, after Marquase Lovings was named interim head coach July 7 after Mark Hudspeth resigned July 3 due to "unacceptable conduct."
"I know they had a coaching change, and all those things probably had some effect on them a little bit," Brown said. "But I do know that offensive and defensive-wise, I'm going to assume you're going to see a lot of similar thing that they've done in the past. They've got a great coaching staff there."
All eyes will be on the Bears and Governors today to see just how different college football might look this year.
And for UCA, they hope to take advantage of that spotlight.
"I think it's a great opportunity to build a brand of football that we play here and to showcase that on national television," Smith said. "You can't really ask for much more."
VS. AUSTIN PEAY
WHEN 8 p.m. Central
WHERE Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.
2019 RECORDS Central Arkansas 9-4;
Austin Peay 11-4