UCA poses challenge for A-State

Arkansas State’s Layne Hatcher looks for a receiver during last weekend’s game at Coastal Carolina. The Red Wolves host Central Arkansas on Saturday.

JONESBORO — Arkansas State was unlikely to have trouble against the Football Championship Subdivision team originally scheduled for its home opener.

Howard University, which was 2-10 last season, was supposed to visit Centennial Bank Stadium in September. That game fell off ASU’s schedule in July when the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Bison’s league, suspended fall sports because of COVID-19.

Central Arkansas had dates to fill, too, so the Red Wolves and Bears lined up a game. UCA was No. 11 in last year’s final FCS polls after winning a share of the Southland Conference title.

And the Bears won 28-23 when they last visited Jonesboro in 2016, an outcome ASU head coach Blake Anderson recalled without prompting in his weekly press conference.

“We definitely do not want to give them another opportunity to talk about how they beat us and deal with that for the next year,” Anderson said. “I know we’ve got them on the schedule a year from now, and I’m fine with having them every year, but this is the one we’ve got and we’ve got to find a way to get it handled and we’ve got to deal with the circumstances that we’re in and still find a way to get a win.”

ASU (1-2) and UCA (2-2) meet Saturday at Centennial Bank Stadium. Kickoff for the Red Wolves’ homecoming game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

The Red Wolves and Bears initially set a Sept. 19 game date, but the contest was pushed back when ASU was unable to field two-deep at one position group for reasons related to COVID-19. Another home game against Tulsa the following week was postponed for the same reason, though the position group was different.

According to ASU athletic media relations, the Red Wolves haven’t played a home opener later than Oct. 10 since 1950.

Last weekend was disappointing for both teams, though for vastly different reasons.

ASU was blown out 52-23 at Coastal Carolina in its Sun Belt Conference opener. Anderson said mental mistakes put the Red Wolves in a bad spot and were made worse by fatigue in their first game in three weeks.

“I’d say 21 points at the end just came by pure fatigue,” Anderson said. “At that point we weren’t tackling well, we weren’t lining up well, we weren’t playing well, but we had opportunities to stay in the game and that’s where I thought the mental mistakes put us in a position where it was really tough.”

UCA, meanwhile, went head to head with the best of FCS and had a chance to win. The Bears led three-time defending national champion North Dakota State in the fourth quarter before the Bison rallied for a 39-28 victory on their home field.

“We led for 28 minutes against a team that has won 38 straight games and feel like coming home we probably could have or should have won that game, so there’s a lot of frustration,” UCA head coach Nathan Brown said.

Anderson praised UCA’s team speed and effort, saying NFL prospect Robert Rochell is consistently the first Bear down the field on punt coverage. A 6-foot-2 senior cornerback and FCS All-American, Rochell will be part of a marquee matchup Saturday against ASU’s tall outside receivers, 6-3 Jonathan Adams Jr. and 6-5 Dahu Green.

The Bears also have an experienced quarterback in Breylin Smith, who has passed for 781 yards and eight touchdowns, and an All-SLC wideout in 6-3 Lujuan Winningham, who already has five touchdown receptions.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the team they’ve got and the job they’re doing,” Anderson said. “In no way, shape or form will we take anything other than the approach that they’re good enough to beat us, and we better be ready to play and we better play better than we did last week, or we’ll lose another one.”

ASU is one of three FBS teams on UCA’s schedule. The Bears lost 45-35 at UAB on Sept. 3 and they are scheduled to visit Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 21.

Brown, who is in his third season as head coach at his alma mater, said the 2016 victory over ASU remains a “big calling card” for UCA. The Bears earned their third victory over an FBS team when they opened the 2019 season by knocking off Western Kentucky, which went on to win nine games.

“People all the time say, ‘Well, it helps recruiting.’ Obviously, yeah, you beat an FBS opponent,” Brown said. “I don’t think it helps as much in our head-to-head recruiting with Arkansas State. We’ll see some of the same players at times, but more times than not, Arkansas State is going to win those recruiting battles.

“It’s just the FBS factor, that’s just the way it is, but for our national notoriety and at the FCS level, any FBS win is a huge win, especially when you win against a team the caliber and the respect of Arkansas State.”