Battle for league lead highlights this week's Southland slate
(STATS) - Central Arkansas has matched its best Southland Conference start since joining the league in 2006 and will get to play four of its final six games at home.
The Bears' schedule is also about to get as bumpy as a car with worn shocks.
UCA's daunting set of games begins Saturday night against the Southland's only other unbeaten team, 15th-ranked McNeese State, which will bring its standout defense to the Stripes.
Central Arkansas has bounced back from losses at Samford and Oklahoma State with three straight wins to open its conference campaign. The Bears have also faced opponents that are a combined 3-12 and 2-8 in the league after registering a 43-7 rout at Houston Baptist last Saturday.
The Bears, conference title winners in 2008 and 2012, will face McNeese (5-0, 4-0), Lamar and STATS FCS No. 23 Southeastern Louisiana to finish off this month while pursuing another crown. They'll finish the regular season with a visit from No. 9 Sam Houston State on Nov. 21.
"We know what's at the back end but we can't worry about that at all," coach Steve Campbell said. "The biggest game of the year is the next game. That's the way we have to approach it from here on out."
The Bears have the Southland's second-best scoring defense (23.8 points per game) but that pales in comparison to McNeese's FCS-low 6.8 allowed per contest. The Cowboys also rank first nationally in total defense (243.8 yards per game) and third in rushing defense (73.2 ypg), including an average of 19.4 in the second half.
That could prove a tough test in what's likely quarterback Hayden Hildebrand's third career start. The sophomore had 274 yards and four touchdowns last Saturday while filling in for Taylor Reed, who remains day to day with an injured shoulder.
It's unclear if Reed will get his job back when at full health. Hildebrand has a 72.7 completion rate, 685 yards and nine TDs to one interception since taking over for the senior during a 49-21 win over Northwestern State on Sept. 26.
Fellow sophomore Dominique Thomas, the Southland's third-leading rusher, has aided his new quarterback by running for 343 of his 461 yards in the past three games.
The Bears have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the conference in Derek Floyd (four sacks) and STATS preseason All-American Jonathan Woodard (three). Tremon Smith has a Southland-best eight pass breakups with two interceptions.
Woodard needs two more sacks to tie Mike Coffman's 30 from 1979-82 and is six tackles for loss shy of owning another school mark.
McNeese, meanwhile, has a conference-leading 19 sacks with Bo Brown, Ashari Goins and Jammerio Gross-Whitaker recording three apiece. That's the Cowboys' highest total in their first five games since 2001.
They recorded four in a 21-7 win over Southeastern Louisiana last Saturday and held the Lions' rushing attack to 59 yards, 193.3 below its season average. Ryan Ross, meanwhile, had a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns.
McNeese is facing UCA in the "Red Beans and Rice Bowl" for the first time since a 59-28 win in Conway on Oct. 5, 2013. That win was the first in four all-time trips to Central Arkansas and ended the Bears' 12-0 record on the Stripes.
UCA is 21-3 since beginning play on that uniquely patterned field in 2011.
"Just going to Conway and playing at UCA has always been hard, especially with the caliber of football team that coach Campbell has this year," McNeese coach Matt Viator said.
Savannah State and Columbia have snapped FCS' longest active losing streaks in each of the past two weeks. Could Nicholls State make it three weeks in a row?
The Colonels (0-5, 0-3) have dropped 23 straight since a 33-21 victory over Northwestern State on Oct. 12, 2013, but would seem to have two prime chances to end that skid. They'll face Houston Baptist this weekend and Northwestern State (0-5, 0-3) on Oct. 31.
Nicholls led until the final minute in a 28-24 defeat at Stephen F. Austin last weekend and will next face a program that's beaten one FCS opponent in its two-plus seasons of existence.
That lone win was a 31-21 victory against Nicholls on Oct. 25, but the Colonels will host the Huskies this time.
Lamar's Kade Harrington will try to follow up his Southland record-breaking 347-yard rushing performance against Abilene Christian by taking sole possession of the Cardinals' touchdown and scoring record. Harrington's 33 TDs and 198 points have him tied with Sammy Carpenter (1951-54) heading into Saturday's game at Northwestern State.
Lamar receiver Reggie Begelton will try to add the program's receiving touchdowns mark to his already exceptional resume. The Cardinals' all-time leader in receptions and yardage needs two more TDs to surpass former teammate Mark Roberts' 21.
Northwestern State's Ed Eagan needs four kick return yards to top Karrington Bush's career conference mark of 2,531 for Texas State from 2007-10. He is also 326 yards shy of owning the Demons' career all-purpose yardage record.
With his next 100-yard rushing game, Daniel Sams will own the most for a McNeese quarterback with five.