With a 29-25 lead and 3:57 left on the clock, it was up to the Bears’ defense to close out Sam Houston (5-4, 4-2 SLC) and secure the Homecoming victory.
The first opportunity to get the Bearkats’s offense off the field came at the UCA 48-yard line. With the crowd intensity raising on fourth and ten, SHSU sophomore quarterback Ty Brock found senior receiver Nathan Stwert for a 20-yard gain, placing the Bearkats in scoring range.
After moving inside red zone to the Bears 15-yard line, momentum appeared to be with the Bearkats. But that’s when UCA tapped into the fourth quarter magic they’ve been able to rely on all season.
Junior defensive linemen Azuka Mgbemna earned the first sack of his career, and also forced a fumble in the process. The loose ball fell into the hands of junior defensive end J.W. Jones and kept the Bears undefeated on the stripes for the season.
This win, along with losses from Incarnate Word and Nicholls universities, moved the Bears (6-2, 4-1 SLC) into first place in the Southland Conference.
The “next man up” mentality comes off as cliche to many, but it’s one the Bears have been required to carry.
“I think it just really starts with practice,” senior defensive back Isaiah Macklin said. “Everybody gets reps. Our coaches do a good job of rotating in ones, twos and even threes so everybody is read when their number is called.”
Senior running back Carlos Blackman reiterated these ideas and talked about how it’s beneficial in crucial moments of the game.
“Coach always tells us to be ready, your name can be called at anytime” Blackman said. “We respond well to that and everybody is always ready to go no matter what.”
In this contest, UCA was forced to battle through many obstacles, losing sophomore receiver Lujuan Winningham, sophomore offensive linemen Will Burgess and junior tight end Josh Nix to injury. Coupled with this, UCA went into halftime scoreless and facing a 16-point deficit.
The second half was a different story for UCA as the offense found a rhythm early in the third against the Southland's top-ranked passing defense efficiency team.
The Bears found the end zone for the first time early in the third quarter on a 40-yard deep ball from sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith to junior receiver Joe Hampton. After Sam Houston struck again, extending their lead to 22-7, the Smith and Hampton connection would return to keep UCA in striking distance.
Their second touchdown connection came as another deep ball, this time going for 53-yards.
UCA went on to tie the score at 22 midway through the fourth quarter on a short pass from Smith Blackman, followed by a 2-point conversion from the backfield duo.
Still, Sam Houston responded by regaining the lead using a 9 play, 50 yard drive finished off with a 42-yard field goal from junior kicker Pinegar Hunter.
Down 25-22, it took UCA just four plays to find themselves in the end zone once again. The 4 play, 67 yard drive ended with a 15-yard pass from Smith to freshman receiver Tyler Hudosn giving the Bears the lead for good.
Hudson and Hampton picked up the slack left behind due to Winningham’s injury. The two combined for 15 catches, 289 yards and three touchdowns.
Smith finished the game with a 405 passing yards, while tying his career-high in touchdowns in this homecoming showdown.
On the defensive side, sophomore linebacker TJ Campbel led the Bears in tackles with 14, followed by sophomore defensive back Deandre Lamont with nine.
The fight to remain in first place in the Southland Conference begins Nov. 2 for UCA as they travel to Beaumont, Texas for a matchup with Lamar University.