UCA offense looks for quick start

University of Central Arkansas quarterback Will McElvain passed for a career-high in yards against Southern Utah and Southeast Missouri State, but his team spent this week looking to find offensive balance as they take on Stephen F. Austin today at Estes Stadium in Conway. (Photo courtesy UCA Athletics)

For all of the excitement and wonder of the University of Central Arkansas' 38-33 comeback win over Southeast Missouri State a week ago, it was followed by reflection of how the Bears got to that point, needing 32 points in the fourth quarter to win.

The Bears (4-2, 2-0 United Athletic Conference) were held to six points -- on two Jake Gaster field goals -- through the first three quarters. After four dominant weeks rushing, led by junior ShunDerrick Powell, UCA was held in check for the second week in a row. Against Southern Utah, the Bears rushed for 3.2 yards per attempt. Against Southeast Missouri State, that number rose slightly to 3.8 yards per attempt through the first three quarters.

On its final drive, UCA rushed twice for 29 yards, including the go-ahead score on a 9-yard rush by Kylin James.

In light of a bottled-up rushing attack, UCA hasn't been without an answer. Quarterback Will McElvain has passed for a career-high in yards against Southern Utah and Southeast Missouri State. The Bears spent this week looking to find a balance that resembled its final drive last week more than the first eight.

"We've got to win on first down," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "We're a lot better offensively when we're getting the first-down wins, which is 6 yards or more. And so when we do that, we can get into our tempo offense. Usually when you're winning on first down, you're running the ball more efficiently. We've had teams that have really established their scheme to the box. I would too if I was going against our three running backs.

"Once we get going, you'll see we're a momentum offense. We get a big play, usually we're going to tempo the next play and usually it's another big play. We haven't been able to do that much because of our first down lack of production. Creativity is going to help that, but [we're] just getting back to who we are.

Over the first four weeks, we had so much success in the run game, we got to thinking, 'Hey, we're going to run the ball on anybody.' Well, people are going to scheme us, too. And so we've got to do a better job in practice throughout the week, really having a purpose and intensity."

In a 34-7 win over Stephen F. Austin last season, the Bears had their way on the ground with 233 yards on 42 attempts. James rushed for 155 yards on 10 carries while Darius Hale was sidelined with a hamstring injury.

In today's game against Stephen F. Austin (3-3, 0-2) will give the Bears one last game before their bye week to see just how much progress they've made.

"When [our running backs] don't just go off because they're better than others and get us out of bad plays, how are we going to move the ball?" said Brown, whose team is ranked No. 20 in FCS. "And so we've got to continue to grow as an offense and as a pass game and as a creative run game to help those guys as well.

"In the first half, we've got to put an emphasis on throwing the ball. I think we've tried to establish the run so much the past two weeks, and it got us out of groove because they were stopping it. We got to drop back and pass the ball a little more early on to maybe soften up the defense, then let the run game take over.

While the run game was an example of plays not being made by the Bears, the number of penalties committed by them exemplified an overeagerness to make plays.

UCA was called for 10 penalties resulting in 116 yards last week. This came a week after the Bears were hit for 147 penalty yards.

"It's a team discussion, as well as a coach discussion," Brown said. "It's an accountability discussion throughout practice, throughout the way we handle situations in team settings on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday during practice, so that you don't imitate the same thing on Saturday.

"I think everything gets ratcheted up in a tight game. You know, it's easy to hold your emotions when you're up big. It's easy to hold your emotions when the game's not close. But in a very stressful situation, how are you reacting and responding? And that's something we've got to continue to educate every one of our players with. When you have a really good team, usually you play with an edge. And so we just got to be able to hone in on that edge and correct it and be better at it whenever we get to Saturday."

UCA plays an aggressive style of defense, particularly at cornerback where the Bears play man defense on nearly every play. As much as Brown and his staff want to rid their team of the penalty problems that have ailed them the past two games, they're hoping it doesn't come at the cost of team identity.

"We definitely don't want to take the aggressiveness out of our guys," Brown said. "I think that's why we've had success on defense to this point this year."