CONWAY, Ark. – A second-half comeback for the No. 3 Sam Houston State Bearkats never came to full fruition on Saturday night as the No. 11 Central Arkansas Bears handed the Kats a 41-30 defeat at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
The Bearkats (3-1, 1-1 SLC) had won three straight games in the series against Central Arkansas (3-1, 2-0 SLC) and 12 in a row in Southland Conference play, but fell behind by 18 points in the first half and could not hold off a Bear squad that was fueled by big plays all night long.
Corey Avery rushed for 134 yards and a score and Jeremiah Briscoe threw for 303 yards and three scores, tying the school record for career touchdown passes on the night. But UCA allowed the Bearkat signal caller to complete just 22 of 50 passes on the night, including picking off a pair of passes.
The game was marred by penalties with the teams combining for 29 flags that accounted for 301 yards; however, the Bears did not turn the ball over after surrendering the ball five times a year ago in Huntsville in Sam Houston’s 59-23 victory.
Nathan Stewart turned in the second-best game of his career with three touchdown grabs, finishing with eight catches for 164 yards on the night. Yedidiah Louis had five catches for 55 yards, but the Kats only finished with five receivers who hauled in catches on the night.
Defensively, P.J. Hall had a big night with eight tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss. Justin Johnson and Hunter Brown led the team with nine tackles apiece, with Johnson also totaling two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
For the Bears, quarterback Hayden Hildebrand only put the ball in the air 25 times, but completed 13 of his passes for 294 yards and four scores without an interception. He found seven different receivers on the night, including connecting with Cedric Battle for a pair of touchdowns. In all, UCA averaged 7.2 yards per play in putting up 467 yards of offense for the game.
Things did not get off to a good start for the Bearkats, who found themselves down at the end of the first quarter for the first time in an SLC game since 2013. Tremon Smith made the first big play of the game for the Bears when he picked off Briscoe on the game’s opening drive, the first of two interceptions for him on the night, and returned it 42 yards for a score to put UCA up 7-0.
Sam Houston would respond with a 78-yard touchdown drive that was capped when Stewart hauled in a 34-yard juggling catch in the end zone for a score, the first of two touchdowns in the half for him.
The Kats would roll up 317 yards of offense in the half, but the Bears did their work with the big play, producing five plays of 35 yards or more in the opening two quarters on their way to 331 yards of offense.
UCA retook the lead on a 25-yard connection from Hildebrand to Cedric Battle and two drives later the same connection worked again for UCA on a 1-play drive that went for 46 yards against busted coverage to push the lead to 21-7.
Sam would not get back on the board until a 36-yard field goal by Tre Honshtein late in the third quarter cut the lead to 21-10 after the Kats used 15 plays to go 58 yards; however, UCA used the big play again on the next drive when Hildebreand found Brandon Myers for 74 yards on the second play of the series making it a 28-10 lead.
Briscoe would find Stewart again from 39 yards out on the last SHSU series of the half to make it 28-17, but consecutive completions of 35 and 45 yards by the Bears on the next drive set up a 17-yard field goal by Matt Cummins that gave UCA a 31-17 lead at the break.
The Bears added three points on their first drive, but the Kats managed to cut into the lead in the third quarter. UCA took the opening drive and marched 44 yards in 10 plays for a 33-yard field goal by Cummins, but the Kats’ offense began to move in the third.
Sam Houston moved it deep into UCA territory before Smith picked off Briscoe for the second time on the night to end the drive. The Kats then got a big defensive stop and went right back to work, going 87 yards in just nine plays to get back into the end zone. Avery picked up 45 yards on the ground on the drive, but it was the third connection by Briscoe to Stewart that got Sam back on the board when the sophomore hauled in a 2-yard score to cut the lead to 34-24.
One drive later the Kats went back to work, going 84 more yards to paydirt get even closer at 34-30, capping the drive on a 20-yard run from Avery. The Kats would then get another stop and get the ball back, moving to near midfield before the drive stalled out.
But punter Cameron Hearn could not handle the snap out of punt formation, giving the ball back to UCA with 9:24 to go on the Bearkat 17-yard line. Two plays later Hildebrand connected with Brandon Cox for what turned out to be the game-sealing score.
With his third touchdown pass of the night, Briscoe tied Brian Bell for the all-time record for touchdown passes at Sam Houston with 84. The connection was to Stewart for the third time, giving the sophomore 18 career touchdown receptions in just 17 games played in his career.
Sam Houston will now turn its gaze to NRG Stadium next week as they head to Houston to take on Stephen F. Austin in the 92nd edition of the Battle of the Piney Woods. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at the home of the Houston Texans and will be aired on ESPN3.
Coach K.C. Keeler
“I thought they took advantage with their week off and we came out offensively with things we have never seen. But we should follow our keys and don’t overreact but we over reacted and got our eyes off of our keys and they made big plays. The big plays killed us like the wheel routes and go’s on the screens. That was disappointing. Offensively, we couldn’t get into good rhythm and told Tim in the second half we cannot sub because when we sub the officials were really holding the clock ruining the tempo of the game. We got a little better rhythm in the second half, so hats off to Central Arkansas. I thought they played an outstanding game and they were really excited to play us. I think honestly our kids heard all week about how we couldn’t be beaten because of what we did to Nichols. Obviously, that wasn’t true. But back to the drawing board and we have a really good football team and a lot of football to play. This lost won’t define us and we need to lick our wounds and go and watch tape. Next week we have a rivalry game against SFA, which it doesn’t matter what the records say in a rivalry game."
Keeler on the Kats' late mistake on punt team ...
“Well it wasn’t a high snap it hit him right in his hands and he should have caught it. That was a catchable ball and he has to make that play. We are at a point where we were four points down and hopefully get a stop and get the ball back and take the lead. That obviously was a back breaker. But we lost in all three phases. Every player, every coach, every trainer, and every game manager was responsible for this lost. We did come out excited to play against a team that was really good and had three years of pent of frustration.”
Jeremiah Briscoe on the UCA defensive scheme ...
“James Madison charted the blueprint to beat us which is play man coverage. It should be a slap in the face and they basically out athlete us. They made more plays than we did. We got exposed and so we are going to learn from mistakes and get better.”
Briscoe on the two interceptions thrown ...
“Both interceptions were a great job by the corner. I’m not looking at him, I’m not expecting him to undercut any one of those. It was man coverage and I was expecting him to stay on his guy and he did a great job falling off his route on both of them. Kudos to him that’s why he is one of the best corners out there but if I don’t throw those two picks it would have been a different game. I put that on my shoulders and that is a great player making great plays. There is a lot to learn from but I’m not making any excuses.”
Briscoe on Nathan Stewart's big night and the Bearkat receiving corps ...
“Like I said before I believe we have the best receivers in the country. Did everyone play like that tonight, no. Did I play like that tonight, no. But he is a guy that when we get going he can do a lot of good and so can any one of our receivers. It was one of those nights.”
PJ Hall on the big plays by the UCA offense ...
“I guess we were focused on the run too much and didn’t pay attention to our keys. They had some really good skill players out there. The offensive line did a really good job play auctioning on us. Their offensive plays just beat us. They just wanted it more tonight."
Hall on the team needing to bounce back ...
“First off we have to shake this off. Forget about it and just move on and worry about the next game. Just make sure we stay focus and on track. It is a good feeling to know we have the Battle of the Piney Woods next because it is always a good game and we always have a good crowd and atmosphere. It won’t be too hard to get focused on the next game.”