Until this time last week, the University of Central Arkansas football team had a perfect start to life in the ASUN Conference.
The Bears were traveling to Richmond, Ky. with a 3-0 record in conference and had a share of the conference title waiting for them there if they could defeat Eastern Kentucky.
But the Bears fell flat, losing by their second-largest margin of the season to fall to 4-5.
Today, UCA is taking a break from ASUN play for its final nonconference contest to face Stephen F. Austin of the Western Athletic Conference.
UCA Coach Nathan Brown spoke before the Eastern Kentucky game about guarding against the pressure that a potential conference title could bring to his team. He said after the game that he thought his group wanted to win so much that they played tight.
The ASUN and the WAC will share one automatic qualifier spot this season. UCA and SFA (5-4) each sit in second place in their respective conferences, so today's matchup will go a long way toward, not only their overall records, but which conference will have its representative chosen to make the playoffs.
"It's a good problem to have when you're playing for something in November," Brown said. "Sevnty-five-80% of the teams at our level aren't playing for anything right now. ... If you're playing meaningful games in November, then you're doing well as a program. And so we've had an up and down year, and probably once lost some games we should have won and maybe not had the overall success we wanted to in our overall schedule, but we've still put ourselves in a position in the ASUN Conference to now the last couple of weeks be playing and battling for something."
UCA and Stephen F. Austin have a long history as former Southland Conference foes.
The Bears lead the overall series 11-4 but fell last season at Estes Stadium in Conway 27-14 in a nonconference meeting.
The Lumberjacks return starting quarterback Trae Self. The senior threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns in last year's victory. They return Self's top target and the program's career receiving leader, Xavier Gipson.
One big question mark looming for UCA heading into today is the availability and health of star running back Darius Hale.
The sophomore injured his hamstring late in the game against North Alabama on Oct. 29 and was limited in practice the following week. Brown said Hale was in tears following the news that he was a game-time scratch against Eastern Kentucky and that Hale should be good to go against Stephen F. Austin.
"Hopefully he'll be a week better and a week stronger and be ready for this final two-week push in the regular season," Brown said.
Hale is second in the ASUN in both rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns. Brown said Hale's mere presence on the field can alter opponents' game plans and open up opportunities for the rest of the team.
"Even when Darius isn't carrying the football, he's still drawing attention," Brown said. "When No. 4 is out there, and you put the ball in his chest, you see safeties fill gaps because they have to. When that happens, it opens up the passing game. So having Darius out there as a threat is always a pleasure even when he's not getting the football because he is so dynamic."