Playoffs latest proving ground for rising Central Arkansas
(STATS) - With a No. 3 ranking in the STATS FCS Top 25 and a No. 4 playoff seed, Central Arkansas finally has the national respect it's been seeking.
And if there's any remaining skepticism regarding their newfound reputation as a title contender, the Bears have a chance to change that as well.
A victory in Saturday's second-round matchup with battle-tested New Hampshire would accomplish two significant firsts for a program that's been on the fast track towards perennial power status. Central Arkansas (10-1) has never won 11 games in a season since making the jump to Division I in 2007 and more importantly, never has advanced to the quarterfinals in any of its three previous trips to the FCS playoffs.
"We have to approach this at a much higher level," said senior rover George Odum, the Southland Conference's Defensive Player of the Year. "Our standards have to be higher. We've got to dominate from the line of scrimmage. We've got to set the tone from the first play to the last."
Though New Hampshire (8-4) hasn't had what could be viewed as a vintage season, its name still carries plenty of weight in FCS circles. Sporting the division's longest active postseason streak at 14 years, the Wildcats have won at least one playoff game in four of the past five seasons and their current senior class was part of the second of consecutive semifinals appearances from 2013-14.
"They're a very, very proud program," Bears coach Steve Campbell remarked. "So it's a big challenge for us."
That consistent level of success is what UCA has slowly striven towards in Campbell's four seasons there. The goal came closer to reality in 2016, when the Bears went 10-3, won a playoff opener over Illinois State and gave eventual national semifinalist Eastern Washington some early trouble in the second round. They took an even bigger step forward this fall, capturing the program's first Southland title since 2012, achieving its highest national ranking as a D-I member and a first-ever FCS national seed.
The Bears also enter the postseason as one of the hottest teams, having won 10 straight since a season-opening loss at Big 12 member Kansas State. That run includes a 41-30 home victory over Southland rival and national No. 6 seed Sam Houston State.
"I think we've just had more confidence this year, and I think it's been that way since Game 1," senior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand said. "Last year was pretty much everybody on this team's first time in the playoffs. It's kind of a different experience. Getting that under our belt last year, getting that playoff win and going to Eastern Washington and playing what was a tight game for a while against one of the top teams in the nation, I think it's very beneficial moving forward."
That swagger and attention to detail have morphed Central Arkansas into one of the tournament's more dangerous teams. A balanced offense features Hildebrand (2,768 passing yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTs), the Southland Player of the Year and the FCS leader in passing efficiency, and a persistent rushing attack from the thunder-and-lightning tandem of 240-pound sophomore Carlos Blackman (702 yards, 10 total TDs) and shifty freshman Kierre Crosley (770 yards, 4 TDs).
"They are explosive on the offensive side of the ball with a very, very good quarterback in Hildebrand," UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. "Their offensive line averages right around 308 (pounds) a pop. They're a big, strong physical offensive line, (they) remind me a lot of (James Madison's) offensive line with the physicality that they have. They've got talent across the board."
An aggressive defense headlined by Odum and all-conference pass rushers Chris Terrell and Eric Jackson concerns McDonnell as well. The Bears rank seventh in the FCS with 37 sacks, while the Wildcats have allowed a troubling 48 for the season and 19 over their last three games.
New Hampshire's problematic front line did provide quarterback Trevor Knight enough time to throw for 299 yards and a touchdown in last week's 14-0 opening-round win over Northeast champ Central Connecticut State. However, three missed field goals and a red-zone interception turned a game the Wildcats controlled throughout into one that wasn't fully decided until the final minutes.
"We held the ball. The problem is we didn't finish in the red zone," McDonnell said. "We're going to have to do it this week because this team we're playing, Central Arkansas, one can score but two, they defend very well. So any opportunity we get to score, we better take advantage of it when we're down inside the 20."
New Hampshire is just 1-4 in true road games and was shut out in two of its last three, and the Bears are 10-1 on "The Stripes" at Estes Stadium since the start of last season. Yet despite the Wildcats' periodic struggles, Campbell remains wary of the talents of the experienced Knight (3,150 passing yards, 24 TDs, 7 INTs) and Payton Award finalist Neil O'Connor (91 catches, 1,341 yards, 10 TDs), a player the UCA coach likened to former Eastern Washington star and current NFL receiver Cooper Kupp.
"What I've gathered on New Hampshire is they're an outstanding football team. Very, very good defensively with some playmakers on offense," he said. "A program that's been to the playoffs 14 years in a row and a team that beat (FBS member) Georgia Southern, who I know is a very good football team, earlier in the year."