MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- For Breylin Smith and Lujuan Winningham, there's just something about playing Austin Peay.
After connecting for the game-winning touchdown a year ago against the Governors, the junior quarterback and wide receiver did it again Saturday night. This time, Smith found Winningham on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 34 seconds remaining to lift FCS No. 11 University of Central Arkansas over No. 13 Austin Peay 24-17 on Saturday night from the Cramton Bowl.
"I knew in the end, our best players, our superstars were going to have to make big plays," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "We had four or five fourth-quarter comebacks last year as a program, and our defense was on the field every single one of those games last year, and that was just like last year."
Once again, the two teams showed a flare for the dramatic, but this time it was on national television in the first college football game of the season. And it only took 16 seconds to get things started.
Austin Peay running back CJ Evans Jr. scored on the opening play of the game, going 75 yards on an option play.
"We gave up that big first play," Brown said. "But players didn't panic, and we just kept fighting."
But UCA fought back thanks to senior running back Kierre Crossley, who rushed for 110 yards on 12 carries and 1 touchdown. His performance paired with UCA's stout defense were needed after a sloppy offensive start put the Bears down 10-0 less than four minutes into the game.
But the early hole UCA dug wasn't because of a lack of opportunities.
The Governors had bad snaps on three punt attempts and fumbled once to set UCA up on the right side of the 50-yard line four times in the first half -- three times inside the 30. The Bears couldn't find the end zone, settling for two field goals and turning the ball over twice, with junior quarterback Breylin Smith throwing two interceptions. One of those interceptions occurred when Smith underthrew sophomore wide receiver Tyler Hudson, who was wide open in the back of the end zone.
UCA's offense finally got going in the second half, scoring on the opening position on a three-play, 56-yard drive capped by a 34-yard touchdown by Crossley to put UCA up 13-10. The Bears added a third field goal to take a 16-10 lead with 7:44 remaining in the game.
One drive later, Austin Peay went 60 yards on eight plays in 2:32, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by junior quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall for a 17-16 lead.
With 1:34 to go, Smith had a shot to play hero for the Bears against the Governors again.
He led the Bears down the field in a hurry, connecting on five passes, including a 29-yarder to Hudson, who made a back-shoulder catch down the left sideline with a defender attached to him to set UCA with a first and goal from the 10. Smith found Winningham in the back of the end zone on the next play. The Bears also converted a two-point conversion for a 24-17 lead with 34 seconds left.
Austin Peay moved 48 yards in 32 seconds, setting up a final shot at the Bears' 27 with two seconds remaining. But Oatsvall's pass was intercepted by Tamaurian Wilson as the clock ran out.
"A win's a win," Brown said. "You knew it was going to be a fourth-quarter game, and that's exactly what it was. We probably didn't deserve to win the game in some aspects. We turned the ball over too much, missed too many short fields, but I was really impressed with how our defense handled tonight."
Other than the big play to start the game and the late fourth-quarter drives, UCA's defense was stingy, holding the Governors to 333 total yards and 16 first downs.
UCA's lone forced turnover was a fumble recovered by junior defensive back Deandre Lamont.
Meanwhile, UCA's offense struggled for the majority of the game, turning the ball over three times and going 4 of 16 on third downs. Smith especially had a rough outing, going 26-of-49 passing with 283 yards, 2 interceptions and a lone touchdown throw, but he made clutch plays down the stretch.
"Breylin's just got so much poise," Brown said. "He did not have a good game. Bottom line is he missed some throws. I thought he made some decisions that he usually makes better. And again, I think we got a little flustered.
"But Breylin is so mature. He's just a mature kid. I love having him have the football in the fourth quarter late in the game, I don't care what kind of game he's had prior to that."
UCA has a quick turnaround in its pieced-together schedule, traveling to Birmingham on Thursday to face UAB in the first FBS game of the season.
"We've got a full schedule ahead of us," Brown said. "We're not like a lot of people playing a couple of games. We're happy to get game No. 1 in under our belt. Here's one thing: If we play like that on Thursday against UAB, we're going to get run out of the house."