No. 2 Eagles rally past Bears in FCS Playoffs

From UCA Sports
Steve East, Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations

CHENEY, Wash. – The No. 2 seeded Eastern Washington Eagles overcame a 14-0 deficit Saturday afternoon to beat the University of Central Arkansas Bears, 31-14, in the second round of the FCS Playoffs at Roos Field.

The Eagles (11-1), the national champion in 2010 and perennial playoff team, scored 31 consecutive points after trailing late in the second quarter. After the slow start, EWU put up 531 yards of total offense, including 457 through the air. UCA’s stout run defense, ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the season, held the Eagles to 74 yards on 34 attempts, including 68 yards in losses.

But UCA (10-3), after the 14 consecutive second-quarter points, was limited to a season-low 244 yards of total offense. EWU ran 100 plays to UCA’s 61, resulting in a tired Bears’ defense in the second half.

“Very disappointed in the way the game turned out,’ said UCA head coach Steve Campbell. “I felt like early we had a lot of good things going for us. But I felt the game kind of changed there somewhere in the second quarter. We were up 14-0 and felt like we really had a lot of momentum. But then they scored, we had the turnover and they scored, and then we gave up another one there before the half.

“Then offensively after that, we had a hard time getting anything going. We felt like we could run the football on them early, and we did. But those guys have been there before. Eastern has kind of dug themselves a hole before but they’ve always managed to fight themselves out of it. And they were able to do that again today. So congratulations to them, they’re a great football team. But it’s bitterly disappointing to us because we felt like we had opportunities today.’

The Bears grabbed a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter, utilizing a versatile and efficient offense directed by junior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand. UCA put up the first points of the game on a 4-yard run by freshman Carlos Blackman off a direct snap, capping a 13-play, 71-yard drive. The Bears then got a big 15-yard sack by junior Chris Chambers and forced an Eagles punt that Tre Smith returned past midfield to set the Bears up at the EWU 47.

A 24-yard pass from Hildebrand to Roman Gordon and a 15-yard run by senior Antwon Wells set up a 2-yard touchdown run from Wells with 9:49 left in the first half that gave the Bears a 14-0 advantage.

But the high-scoring EWU offense found its rhythm after that, closing out the half with 21 consecutive points. The first came after a UCA special teams miscue. Junior Dwayne Smith, subbing as kickoff return specialist due to Jatavious Wilson’s injury, fumbled the EWU kickoff and the Eagles took over at the UCA 22. Three plays later, EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud hit All-American Cooper Kupp from 19 yards out for the score to tie it at 14-14 with 3:48 to play.

UCA’s offense stalled again and the Bears punted back to EWU. The Bears held the Eagles and forced a fourth down at the 31 but EWU called a time out and then executed a fake field goal, with Reilly Hennessey throwing in the left flat to Zach Wimberly for eight yards and a key first down. That led to a 6-yard TD pass from Gubrud to Kupp with just 14 seconds remaining for a 21-14 EWU lead.

“The game changed there late in the second quarter,’ said Campbell. “It was 14-0 and them boom, boom, boom it was 21-14 and we didn’t do much offensively after that. But they had been there before, they’ve been down before. They cranked it up a notch and we weren’t able to score any more points after that and help our defense out. A couple of mistakes and they capitalized on every one of them. Great football teams do that.’

For the half, the Eagles finished with 289 yards of total offense on 52 plays, including 283 through the air. Gubrud was 27 of 35 for 275 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with Kupp catching 10 for 95 yards. UCA had 169 yards on 31 plays in the opening half and finished with just 244 total.

In the second half, UCA punted on four straight possessions and then turned the ball over on downs before a late inteceptionin the final seconds of the game.

“I don’t understand it,’ Campbell said. “and I’m sure they wish they knew why people can run the football on them early and then they rev it up a couple of notches and seem to be able to tighten the hatches as the game wore on. And they did that. And we had some opportunities, we just need to take advantage of them.’

The Eagles added a 20-yard field goal by Roldan Alcobendas in the final minute of the third quarter, then got a late touchdown on a Shag Hill 2-yard run with 1:18 to play.

The Bears won 10 games for just the sixth time in school history and came up one victory short of tying the school record of 11. It was UCA’s third trip to the FCS Playoffs and first since 2012.

“Very proud of how far these guys have come,’ Campbell said. “Very, very proud of them and what they were able to accomplish. It still stings because this was one that I feel like we let get away. They’re a great football team, but everyone that is left is a great. We wanted to win for ourselves and our families and our university.

“But this is a great football team so let’s give them credit, they beat us today. But we can compete with these guys, and we had our opportunites to win this game today. Very proud of how the kids fought all year. I thought they continued to fight hard today.’

Hildebrand, a junior from Bossier City, La., completed 15 of 27 passes for 115 yards, while Wells, a senior from Moss Point, Miss., rushed for a game-high 89 yards in his final game. Hildebrand topped the 3,000-yard passing mark for the season, the first UCA quarterback since Wynrick Smothers in 2012. Senior wide receiver Desmond Smith from Bentonville padded his school records for career yards and career receptions, catching three passes for 24 yards in his finale.

Senior wide receiver Jatavious Wilson also added to his school record for all-purpose yards, despite a hamstring injury suffered last week in the first-round win over Illinois State. Senior linebacker Garrett Sharp topped the UCA defensive chart with a career-high 17 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Junior linebacker Chris Chambers added 8 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss as UCA recorded 11 lost-yardage plays for minus 63 yards.

EWU advances to face either North Dakota or Richmond in next Saturday’s quarterfinals.

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