(STATS) – In the span of two weeks, Central Arkansas will have faced the top three in the voting for the Walter Payton Award.
If their first test was any indication, the No. 14 Bears will have their hands full with Eastern Washington's dynamic duo of Cooper Kupp and Gage Gubrud on Saturday in the second round of the FCS playoffs at the third-ranked Eagles' Roos Field.
Central Arkansas (10-2) has the FCS' second-ranked rush defense, limiting opponents to an average of 72.8 yards, but has had trouble defending the pass. That deficiency was on full display in the Bears' regular-season finale at top-ranked Sam Houston State on Nov. 19.
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The Bearkats' Jeremiah Briscoe picked apart the defense, throwing seven of his FCS-leading 52 touchdown passes in a 59-23 rout, snapping Central Arkansas' eight-game winning streak. Briscoe had five TD passes by halftime and threw for 431 yards, exposing a defense that ranks 96th against the pass.
Last Saturday's 31-24 comeback win over Illinois State in the first round of the playoffs may have instilled some confidence, but the Bears, who finished second to Sam Houston in the Southland Conference, now have the terrifying assignment of trying to keep Kupp and Gubrud in check.
The two helped the Eagles go 10-1 – losing only to top seed North Dakota State on the road in overtime – and earn the No. 2 seed in the FCS playoffs. They were both named the Big Sky's Offensive Player of the Year – the first time two players from the same school won that award. Even more extraordinary, the two joined Briscoe as the top three contenders for the Walter Payton Award on Tuesday.
“That's amazing,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said. “I felt they were both very deserving, but I didn't think they both would be finalists. I actually thought one might take the other player's votes. You just don't see this happen very often.”
Kupp was the 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year and became just the fourth player in league history to be named to the Big Sky first team four times. His 91 receptions this season are the third-most in the FCS while his 129.7 receiving yards per game rank first. He owns 13 FCS receiving records, including career receptions (402), receiving yards (6,061) and touchdown catches (68).
Tied to his success this season has been the play of Gubrud. The sophomore's 4,086 yards are only 10 fewer than Briscoe for the most in the FCS while his 68 completion percentage and 9.27 yards per attempt both rank fourth in the division. He leads the FCS in total offense as 412.2 yards per game.
Adding another wrinkle as to how Central Arkansas will defend the high-powered Eagles is the fact that Kupp isn't the only receiver it has to worry about. Senior Shaq Hill trails only Kupp in the Big Sky with 1,014 receiving yards, and his 15 TD receptions are three more than his highly decorated teammate for the second-most in the FCS.
The Bears, however, aren't the only ones going to have their work cut out for themselves defensively.
While EWU is third in the FCS in scoring at 44.2 points per game, Central Arkansas is also capable of piling up the points, averaging 34.7 to tie for 15th in the division.
It scored 24 in the fourth quarter alone in its wild comeback versus Illinois State last weekend, as Antwon Wells' 4-yard touchdown run with 1:28 remaining proved to be the game-winner for the Bears, who entered the final period down by 10.
“I think the guys saw we had 15 minutes left in the season,” UCA coach Steve Campbell said. “It's now or never. It's do or die time. I think the guys took that mantra 'finish.'”
Unlike the Eagles, the Bears rely a bit more on the run.
Freshman Carlos Blackman (590 yards, 4 TDs) leads a balanced ground game that features six players that have rushed for at least 200 yards and have totaled 27 scores. Quarterback Hayden Hildebrand is among that group, having run for 213 yards while throwing for 2,936 yards and 19 scores.
His favorite target is senior Desmond Smith, who was named to the All-Southland first team and owns Central Arkansas all-time receiving records with 2,804 yards and 223 catches.
The Bears also will have a major advantage when they have the ball, as Eastern Washington ranks 104th out of 125 FCS schools against the run and 85th defending the pass.
“Their overall athleticism and playmaking ability really stood out,” Baldwin said. “They make plays downfield, on special teams and their return units. They are athletes and they are aggressive too. There is an explosiveness to their football team that will make it tough on us.”
A prolific offense has helped the Eagles overcome their defensive shortcomings, however, as they've outscored opponent 229-124 to go 5-0 on the red turf of Roos Field this season.
This will be the first meeting between these programs, and the winner moves on to the quarterfinals to face either 12th-ranked Richmond or No. 8 North Dakota, which shared the Big Sky crown with EWU.