Bears pull out another late victory

CONWAY — The University of Central Arkansas Bears used another late touchdown Saturday night to win their fourth consecutive game, a 24-21 victory over their old rival Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.

Darius Hale

The No. 20/25 Bears (5-2, 2-0) led for most of the night before the Lumberjacks (3-4, 0-2) grabbed their first lead of the game with 6:19 to play on a 64-yard passing touchdown. The Bears, who used a 32-3 fourth quarter a week ago to beat Southeast Missouri, went to work again, with less of a mountain to climb this time. They drove 74 yards in 11 plays, capped by Will McElvain’s 3-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Myles Butler in the left flat on fourth down. Jake Gaster’s point after made it a three-point lead with 2:12 to play.

The Bears then turned it over to their defense for the third straight week and that unit responded again. The Lumberjacks started at their own 21 and went minus five yards in their first two plays, a tackle for no gain by linebacker Demetrias Charles and a sack by linebacker Jake Golday. UCA then forced two consecutive incompletions to set off a sideline celebration for the second straight week.

“Man, we just kept playing,” said UCA head coach Nathan Brown. “We forced two missed field goals, we forced a turnover, we had two or three big fourth-down stops. Just an unbelievable night. Look, I don’t want to get used to winning games like this, but a win’s a win and I’m super excited about it.

“It’s the fight and grit of our team. It’s the belief, it’s the veteran leadership. And we’ve gone a couple of years on being snakebitten on games like this, but now we’ve gone three straight weeks of holding on to a win in big moments.”

UCA’s high-powered offense was held in check for much of the night, finishing a season-low 306 total yards. The Bears led just 10-7 at the half, getting a 28-yard field goal from Jake Gaster and a 6-yard rushing touchdown from running back ShunDerrick Powell in the opening half. UCA pushed the lead to 17-7 late in the third period on a 3-yard touchdown pass from McElvain to Christian Richmond.

The Lumberjacks closed it to 17-14 with a scoring pass from backup quarterback Preston Weeks to Lawton Rikel early in the fourth quarter. Weeks, a Baylor transfer, replaced starter Brian Mauer, a transfer from Tennessee, late in the second quarter due to injury. SFA then used a three-play, 80-yard drive to take its only lead of the game after UCA had a field goal attempt blocked.

“He’s (McElvain) got a ton of poise and that’s why we’re having a special year up to this point,” said Brown. “Obviously we’ve still got time left, four games left, but if Will keeps playing at that high level, then we’re going to have success. Because we have enough playmakers, that if we just get the right play call in and make the right read, they’re going to make the play most of the time.

Kylin James

“And I think I could see it happening (with Hale). He’s got a little inner rivalry with SFA. He’s fresh right now, his body’s in good shape. I just knew this defense was going to key on our run game and sometimes those big backs are good in moments like that. I thought Darius really poised us tonight with some big runs. Just a big night all in all. A good attitude. 

“Him, ShunDerrick Powell and Kylin James, that’s three special young men that can really make things happen. when the game matters.”

UCA’s defense was led by Charles, a sophomore from Texarkana, Ark., who had a career-high 17 tackles, surpassing his previous high by five. Charles missed the second half of last week’s win over SEMO after a targeting call in the first half, but more than made up for it with his play Saturday. Golday, another sophomore from Arlington, Tenn. added a career-high 11 tackles, including 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.

“Every play I step out there I just want to get a stop,” said Charles, who entered the game as UCA’s No. 2 tackler on the season. “Every time the ball is snapped, I just want to get them down. Just do what I can do to help the team. Last week I was almost kind of like a cheerleader, but this time I was in there trying to help the team win. So it was way different.”

“He was a great cheerleader,” said Brown. “That might have been one of the most proud games I’ve ever been of DC last week when he obviously got disqualified for the targeting call in the first half. But this dude was in the middle of everything last week. And to be able to come back and combat that with a 17-tackle game, Are you kidding me?

“That’s what college athletics is about right there.”

UCA’s running game accounted for 200 of the 309 yards, with Powell and Hale rushing for 95 and 91 yards, respectively. The latter is a season high for Hale, a 2,000-yard rusher over his UCA career. McElvain completed 15 of 24 passes for 106 yards after two straight weeks of career highs in yardage (349, 397).    

UCA, which has played seven consecutive weeks, has its first open date of the season next Saturday before closing out the month of October at home against Tarleton State on the 28th.