CONWAY -- At halftime of Saturday's game with Sam Houston State, Central Arkansas Coach Nate Brown had a speech for his team. It was the Bears' 2019 win against their current opponent.
"A lot of those guys were at 2019," Browns said. "I mean, it's basically the same scenario. That team fought, scratched, clawed and found a way to win the game."
One story line coming into Saturday's game was that win. Then-No. 12 UCA beat Sam Houston State at home, coming back from a 16-point halftime deficit. On Saturday, the Bears were in familiar territory, down 17 points to the Bearkats at halftime.
The second half of Saturday's game looked like it was heading in a similar direction, but FCS No. 25 UCA (1-3, 0-1 AQ7) couldn't pull off another comeback bid, losing 45-35 to No. 1 Sam Houston (3-0, 1-0 AQ7).
"We fought our tails off the whole game," Brown said. "We know we've got a good team and we lost to a good football team. Maybe not a good, but great, football team. But our guys fought and I think that's the most important thing."
The reigning FCS national champion Bearkats came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and the Bears dug themselves a hole in the process, down as much as 24 points in the first half.
"First quarter killed us, bottom line," Brown said.
In the first quarter alone, the Bearkats outgained UCA 157-79. Sam Houston quarterback Eric Schmid was 6-of-12 passing with 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Schmid finished the night 19-of-37 passing with 283 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The Bearkats kept a hold on the half, going up as much as 31-7 with 2:53 left in the second quarter. But Breylin Smith and the UCA offense had a crucial series to end the quarter, running enough time off the clock for Smith to find Tyler Hudson in the end zone with 9 seconds left, making it 31-14 as the offense would get the ball back to start the second half.
"We were just feeding off the big play right before halftime," Hudson said.
Smith finished the night 25-of-41 passing with 288 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Hudson had 11 receptions for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns.
UCA owned the third quarter, outscoring Sam Houston 14-0 and pulling within 3 of the Bearkats at one point. The Bears made big plays, including a forced fumble by Cameron Godfrey that halted a Sam Houston possession and got the ball back to UCA, but another crucial momentum-shifter was penalties.
It gave the Bears momentum, most notably on their third drive of the third quarter, which was capped by a touchdown to make it 31-28. On plays of second-and-16, fourth-and-2 and third-and-19 in that drive, the Bearkats were called for penalties that gave UCA a new set of downs.
It gave the Bearkats momentum, too, largely in the final quarter.
On Sam Houston's first drive of the quarter, a facemask on UCA defensive back Wesley Anusieum moved the ball from the UCA 28 to the UCA 11 before the Bearkats extended their lead to 34-28 with a field goal.
An unsportsmanlike penalty on the ensuing kickoff pinned the Bears at their own 13 before going three-and-out, and a targeting and roughing the passer call on Godfrey on Sam Houston's second drive of the quarter gave the Bearkats first-and-goal before they scored a touchdown to lead 40-28.
"It seemed like it was at inopportune times is when they hit us," Brown said in reference to the penalties. "And so, we've got to be better, we've got to be more disciplined."