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UCA, Brown open with familiar foe

by Sam Lane | September 1, 2022 at 1:59 a.m.
Nathan Brown

What better way to kick off the 2022 University of Central Arkansas football season than a visit from a familiar face?

UCA begins its season at home Thursday night against Missouri State -- the fourth time the two teams will face off in the past three seasons.

The Bears of Conway faced their Springfield, Mo., counterparts in a rare single-season doubleheader in 2020 as schedules were upended by covid-19 restrictions and once again in 2021. UCA won two of the three matchups.

UCA fell well short of the expectations Coach Nathan Brown had set for it last campaign, and he said he's looking to right the ship this time around. That all starts with tonight's game with Bobby Petrino, the former Atlanta Falcons and University of Arkansas coach who is starting his third season at Missouri State -- which enters ranked No. 5 in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.

"I respect Bobby Petrino as a head coach and a football coach," Brown said. "He puts great products on the field. So anytime you get to match up against a great coaching staff and a well-coached team, that's something you look forward to as a challenge.

"It's important to play games that matter, and I can't think of a better game that matters than hosting the No. 5-ranked team in the country. It's a chance to gauge yourself against a top-10 opponent early on in the year and see how good we really are."

Brown addressed the failure to meet expectations last season by instituting a philosophical change to how UCA approaches recruiting and the sources it goes by to find new players. The Bears feature 44 new players, seven of which from Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

Brown has said the large number of new faces won't change the way UCA operates on the field, but that they do offer the chance to build on and alter it in hopes for an improved season.

"You're always looking to improve. Obviously, us not living up to our standard last year, there was a lot for us to improve on," Brown said. "It wasn't a wholesale change in any area, because we did a lot of things well, and we've done a lot of things well over the years. It's just figuring out what our personnel is and then adjusting to what we think our personnel is good at ... and hopefully it equals success."

Tonight will be the first time the face of that wave of changes, new UCA quarterback Will McElvain, sees action since transferring from Northern Iowa in January, and he's assured an exciting matchup.

Missouri State returns quarterback Jason Shelley, the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

Last season's game ended with both sides scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter, with Missouri State walking away with a 43-34 win. Shelley led a late fourth-quarter drive for a 37-34 lead -- one it didn't relinquish.

"I think we've got a lot of unfinished business in week one," defensive lineman Logan Jessup said. "I've got that one circled."

"Obviously, we've got a lot of history with them recently," Brown said. "We're 2-1 against them, but in all three of those games it could have gone either way. They were all close games, fourth-quarter battles.

"To me, it's as good a regional matchup as far as FCS goes as there it. ... This game's not going to make or break out season, but if you get on the right end of this one, it'll set you up pretty well."

  photo  Bobby Petrino

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