From UCA Sports
Steve East, Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations
CONWAY – It took a 24-point fourth quarter for the University of Central Arkansas Bears to rally past the Illinois State Redbirds and extend their season on Saturday afternoon.
Overcoming an even slower than usual start, the No. 14/16 Bears grabbed the momentum with a blocked punt by George Odum and the return for touchdown by Jakari Dillard and dominated the Redbirds 24-7 in the final 15 minutes in the first round of the NCAA Division I Championship playoffs at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
UCA (10-2) now advances to the second round to face overall No. 2 seed and FCS power Eastern Washington on Saturday in Cheney, Wash.
“Very proud of the resiliency of our football team,’ said UCA head coach Steve Campbell. “I thought we played extremely hard. And I thought today we had a couple of opportunities to turn and go the other way. But you know what, they kept battling and kept battling and just kept fighting. From this point on, each week is going to be a battle. And it’s about resilience. And these guys really, really played hard. I’m really proud of the way they fought and picked each other up. They beat a good football team today, after we dug ourselves into a little bit of a hole.’
“At this time of year, it gets down to special people. It gets down to players not plays. We can talk about that play, but it gets down to players. It gets down to George Odum, it gets down to Antwon Wells, Desmond Smith, Hayden Hildebrand. It gets down to play-ERS, the heart of the players. Terrence Partee,Cardell (Best), (Jordan) Toliver rushing the quarterback and getting the sack there late. Those guys leaving their hearts out there and playing for one another.
“All the credit goes to the players making plays.”
Campbell said the difference in the fourth quarter may have been a simple realization that a highly successful season could be ending Saturday.
“I think the guys saw we had 15 minutes left in the season,’ he said. “It’s now or never. It’s do or die time. I think the guys took that mantra “finish.” I think offense, defense and special teams really picked it up in the fourth quarter.’
UCA’s defense, which had allowed 240 yards and 17 points through three quarters, turned defensive in the final 15 minutes, holding the Redbirds to 94 yards and just 7 points. Meanwhile, the offense found its rhythm as well, rolling up eight first downs (6 at halftime), 167 yards and scoring on four of its five possessions in the period, the other ending the game as UCA ran out the clock.
Trailing 17-7 with only 86 yards of total offense at halftime, the Bears awoke in the second half, specifically the fourth quarter. Junior rover George Odum broke through and blocked ISU’s punt inside the 10-yard line and Dillard scooped it up and went four yards for the TD to draw the Bears within 17-14 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
A quick three-and-out series for the Redbirds gave the Bears the ball back and junior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand orchestrated an 8-play, 83-yard touchdown drive, ending in a 2-yard pass to wide receiver Desmond Smith. The senior from Bentonville broke the school record for career receiving yards Saturday, passing Aaron Fairooz (2003-06), and now has 2,804 yards for his career. Smith broke the school record for career receptions last week and now stands at 223 catches.
That touchdown gave UCA its first lead, and an unsportsmanlike penalty on ISU assessed on the kickoff allowed the Bears to try an onside kick. Conway sophomore Matt Cummins executed the kick and linebacker Roy Sutton recovered for the Bears at the ISU 36. Cummins made a 28-yard field goal with 8:04 to play to push the UCA lead to 24-17.
The Redbirds (6-6), who played in the FCS national championship game in 2014, came back with a quick four-play, 81-yard drive, tying it at 24-24 with a 55-yard touchdown pass from Jake Kolbe to Anthony Warrum with 6:22 to play. After the teams traded punts, UCA got the game-winning scoring drive, courtesy of senior running back Antwon Wells. He caught a first-down pass from Hildebrand and went 39 yards down the right sideline, then went around right end for four yards and the touchdown on the next play for a 31-24 lead with 1:28 on the clock.
The Redbirds lost three yards on four plays, including a six-yard sack by UCA senior Terrence Partee, on their ensuing possession. An incomplete pass on 4th and 13 sealed the victory and moved the Bears to the second round for the third time in as many trips to the FCS playoffs. It also gave UCA 10 victories over Division I teams for the first time since moving up in 2006.
“Very proud of the play of the defense. The defense kept us in it,’ said Campbell. “We got some stops, some crucial deals where we held them to a field goal, created some turnovers. I thought our special teams played really well. We blocked a punt and scooped and scored, and that was a big turning point in the game.
“And offensively, I really thought we stepped up in the second half. I was proud of the way we responded in the second half. We were able to throw and catch and make some plays. We had a lot of people making plays.’
The Bears’ defense recorded 10 lost-yardage plays, including sacks by Partee and two by defensive end Chris Chambers. UCA forced two fumbles, with linebacker Garrett Sharp and safety Juan Jackson recovering. Hildebrand completed 18 of 36 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns, while Smith caught six passes for 61 yards and two scores, a 1-yarder that was the only score for the Bears in the first three quarters. Senior wide receiver Jatavious Wilson left the game with a leg injury in the second half after catching 2 passes for 75 yards and returning 3 kickoffs for 69 yards.
The Bears punted seven times in the first three quarters but just once after that. The Redbirds were nearly the opposite, finishing the game with five punts in their last seven possessions, with the final one ending on downs. UCA ended up with 338 yards of total offense, averaging 4.6 yards per play.
“I thought (offensive coordinator) Coach (Nathan) Brown did a great job calling the game,’ said Campbell. “Once we figured out it was going to be hard sledding running the football, I thought Nathan did a great job of calling the pass plays to give us a chance to get open. When you play a great team, chances are you are going to start slow. You’re not going to light it up _ you’d love to _ but it’s going to be tough.’
UCA, making its first playoff appearance since 2012, got 10 of its 14 first downs through the air. The UCA defense, No. 1 in the nation against the run, allowed just 126 rushing yards, and just 52 in the second half. Kolbe completed 14 of 29 for 208 yards and two touchdowns for the Redbirds.
The Bears will face the 10-1 Eagles, who have been off since a 35-28 win over Portland State on Nov. 18, at 3 p.m. (CT) on Saturday.