University of Central Arkansas football Coach Nathan Brown is looking to take his team to new heights this season, ones it hasn't reached in the previous five as head coach.
That will be put to the test, literally, today as UCA faces Southern Utah in Cedar City, Utah.
At an elevation of 5,846 feet, Cedar City will be the highest elevation any Bears team has played at, topping a 2013 visit to Boulder, Colo. For context, Conway is 331 feet above sea level.
Brown and the Bears began preparation for today's game more than a month ago. It didn't begin with the football side of things like schemes, run fits and play scripts. It first started with conversations between Brown, Head Athletic Trainer David Strickland and Athletic Director Brad Teague.
UCA (2-2, 1-0 United Athletic Conference) will provide its own oxygen tanks for the game, giving players a chance to catch their breath in-between snaps. The Bears have also emphasized hydration and a carbohydrate-heavy diet in preparation.
"This is a unique trip because it's not every weekend you do this," Brown said. "So this is different, you know, it's something you do have to plan for in advance. It's not something you [can] just snap your fingers and you go eight states over and play a football game. I mean, things take prep time, things have to get put into motion earlier than just the week of."
When it came to planning for the game itself, one thing jumped out about Southern Utah (1-3, 0-0).
UCA enters today with the No. 2 rushing attack in FCS with 280 yards on the ground per game. That's led by ShunDerrick Powell's 523 yards, second in FCS to UT-Martin's Sam Franklin (653).
The Thunderbirds feature the No. 5 rushing defense in FCS, holding opponents to 66.8 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry.
"I think they're really athletic on defense," Brown said. "If you watch them, they can really run. Their linebackers ... [are] very athletic, run side to side, fill the gap with aggressiveness, and I think inside, they've got some good, talented, play-making defensive linemen.
"We're gonna have to be us, but we're gonna have to be us with some creativity. We're going to be us and know that we're going against their strength if we want to run the football. And so that's a challenge to our offensive line, it's a challenge to our tight ends, it's also a challenge to our running backs. We got to make a guy miss."
Powell will remain the feature back today like he has in all four previous games, but this may be the most important game yet to have the depth the Bears do at running back with Darius Hale and Kylin James due to the altitude and strength of the opponent.
So far this season, James has rushed for 205 yards and 3 touchdowns on 20 carries. Hale has rushed for 158 yards and 3 touchdowns on 28 carries.
"They just complement each other so well and really, what you've seen in the last couple of weeks, is them truly buying in," Brown said. "All of them want to be the guy. All of them want the bulk of the carries, and I don't think we would want anything other than a competitor. But they're buying into what we're trying to do. ... When you're averaging almost 300 yards a game rushing, you know there's something right going on in that room.
"It's a good way to have depth. I don't think there's any doubt we're in for a dogfight. This is going to be a game that's going to test us. I think whatever advantages we may have, or whatever disadvantages we might have, all get neutralized by going to play them out there. And so that's something we've got to be conscious of, that's something we have to be aware of."
AT SOUTHERN UTAH
WHEN 7 p.m. Central
WHERE Eccles Coliseum, Cedar City, Utah
RECORDS Central Arkansas 2-2; Southern Utah 1-3
COACHES Central Arkansas: Nathan Brown (32-27 in sixth season at UCA and overall); Southern Utah: DeLane Fitzgerald (6-9 in second season at Southern Utah and 92-58 in 15th season overall)
RADIO KUCA-FM, 91.3, in Conway; KKPT-FM, 94.1, in Little Rock