The University of Central Arkansas football team is facing its biggest test yet this afternoon.
The Bears (1-1) held on long enough to make it competitive with Oklahoma State, and if it weren't for some bad injury luck and untimely penalties, they could have left Stillwater with a win.
Last week against Texas College, UCA did what it was expected to do as it beat up on an undermanned NAIA team, winning 70-2.
Today is something different. UCA is in Fargo, N.D., to face No. 2 North Dakota State, a team that has set not just the standard for FCS teams but for all of college football over the past 12 years.
"We're excited about the opportunity, we're excited about the challenge," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "I talked to our team [Sunday night and said], 'These are the games that you signed up to play, right? If you play college football and we're having to get you ready for this game, we need to check your pulse because these are the games you want to play in. These are the games you want to compete in.' "
North Dakota State has won nine of the past 12 FCS championships. The Bison (2-0) have cruised to their two wins this season, beating Eastern Washington 35-10 on Sept. 2 and Maine 44-7 on Sept. 9.
Today's test against the Bison gives the Bears a chance to have their weaknesses exposed or be a proof-of-concept for Brown and his staff on arguably the biggest stage in the FCS.
"This is the week we find out who we are," Brown said. "... We feel like we've got a talented group with the pedigree to be a championship-type team. Well, now you get to go play a champion. You get to go play the ultimate champion, at least for the past decade. So, this is going to be a huge gauge for our program, this is going to be huge gauge for this 2023 UCA Bear team and really, like I told him many times but specifically [Sunday] night in our team meeting, you want to talk like you're a team, well, you get a chance to go play a team."
UCA and NDSU have met just once before, a 39-28 win for the Bison in front of 471 people in Fargo during the fall of 2020. In 2026, NDSU will come to Conway to play as part of a two-for-one deal.
UCA quarterback Will McElvain has his own experience against NDSU from his time at Northern Iowa. He faced the Bison twice, once in 2019 and again in the spring of 2021.
In his game at the Fargodome, McElvain completed 15 of 29 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown in a game NDSU won 46-14.
"When he was in the league, he caused problems for us then, and I'm sure he'll continue to cause problems," NDSU Coach Matt Entz said during his Monday press conference. "We're going to have to play really well. They're a very good football team. Scary, to me."
Brown said McElvain has been instrumental in preparation for today's game, giving players and coaches an idea of what the atmosphere will be like.
"It's going to be fun. And it's going to be a challenge," Brown said. "But here's what our challenge as a team is. I believe teams walk into Fargo and they're beat before they ever walk in that place. I truly believe that. Because of who they are and what they've done over the past decade plus, teams walk into that place they're beat before they even snap the football.
"We're not going to be beat before we snap it. I challenged my team on that [Sunday] night. It doesn't mean that we're not going into an environment that is going to be electric, that doesn't mean we're not going in to play a program that is the standard, because it is the standard at our level. But it does mean we're going to go do what we did Week 1, we're going swing at them, we're going to swing for the fence and we're going to see what happens."