UCA motivated for Eastern Kentucky

Central Arkansas running back Darius Hale, the Bears’ second-leading rusher this season, did not play when UCA lost to Eastern Kentucky last season. The Bears sit in a tie for second place in the conference with the Colonels going into today’s game at Estes Stadium in Conway. (Photo courtesy UCA Athletics)

Heading into last season's game versus Eastern Kentucky, the University of Central Arkansas football team had everything left for which to play.

The Bears entered 4-4, coming off of an explosive 64-20 win over North Alabama, and had an outright conference championship in their sights.

But what came of that game was poor weather and an even worse performance from an undermanned UCA team on the road.

The Bears fell 42-14 without starting running back Darius Hale. Eastern Kentucky quarterback Parker McKinney passed for 253 yards and three touchdowns, while Colonels running back Joshua Carter rushed for 125 yards and a score.

That loss dropped UCA to 4-5 and put a damper on what could have been a successful season.

Since the Bears got on the bus that night to head back to Conway from Richmond, Ky., they've had this year's rematch circled.

"I think anytime you lose a game like that, you get a little bit of PTSD from it," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "You got maybe a little extra motivation because of the way we played last year. And there's a lot of guys out there playing for us right now that were involved in that game. So it does matter."

This season's matchup holds even larger implications than revenge for UCA. The Bears rebounded from a disappointing loss to Tarleton State on Oct. 28 with a 13-point victory over North Alabama a week ago.

The Bears sit in a tie for second place in the United Athletic Conference with Eastern Kentucky. If the Bears win today's game, they will set up a winner–take-all matchup at Austin Peay next week with the conference title on the line.

With a group as veteran-laden as UCA's, Brown said he isn't shying away from what's on the line today.

"I take the honest approach with the players," Brown said. "I mean, obviously you have the 1-0 approach all year, but what you've done up to this point makes these games big. In our meeting room, we've been talking about, especially since the Tarleton loss, we've got to be in playoff mode. We've got no choice."

UCA couldn't sustain winning football for more than two weeks at a time last season, and its midseason form faltered down the stretch as it finished 5-6.

UCA has already shown it can string wins together this season; it won four in a row prior to the Tarleton defeat. The Bears are hoping they haven't played their best football yet with two weeks to go.

"Our challenge to our players is that we want to peak in November," Brown said. "You know, I haven't been a part of many teams at UCA, even good teams, maybe even some thought were great teams, that have peaked late in the year. And so I still feel like we haven't scratched how good we can be. And I'm hoping that this team is getting things right."

The obvious holdover from last season's Eastern Kentucky team is McKinney -- a sixth-year senior quarterback, regarded as one of the top players at his position in the FCS. McKinney has amassed 12,117 passing yards, 1,669 rushing yards and 114 touchdowns in his time with the Colonels.

This will be McKinney's fourth time facing UCA. In his previous three games, he's averaged 231 passing yards and totaled seven touchdown passes. He's also averaged 51 rushing yards across the three previous meetings. Containing McKinney will be priority No. 1 for the Bears and defensive coordinator Greg Stewart, Brown said.

"He burned us as a young player with his legs as much as he did with his arm," Brown said. "What you've seen [from him] over the course of time is him turn into a great passer. ... These next two quarterbacks we'll play are the best this conference has to offer other than [UCA quarterback] Will McElvain. We're going to have to prep and be ready for it, but look, if you're playing for something of significance in November, it probably means you have a good quarterback."