The Northwestern State Demons will hope that is the case tonight, as they welcome the No. 18-ranked Central Arkansas Bears to Turpin Stadium.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Conque and what he’s done with that program,” NSU head coach Jay Thomas said. “It’s amazing of what he’s able to do and the way he uses his talents. He always gets the best out of everyone on his team and that’s a credit to him and his staff.”
In the midst of a three-game winning streak, Central Arkansas lost senior quarterback Wynrick Smothers to a season-ending ankle injury.
However, their aerial assault has not faltered even slightly with junior Ryan Howard as he has thrown for 684 yards and seven touchdowns in the Bears’ recent victories of Lamar and Stephen F. Austin.
“I think it’s a team that has rallied together and really bonded together,” Central Arkansas head coach Clint Conque said. “We have high expectations around here, but we lost a couple of close games early to Colorado and Tennessee-Martin, took a whipping by McNeese and lost some guys. I think this football team has come closer together and I like the sprit of this team.”
Although NSU ranks third in the Southland Conference in passing defense, UCA has the No. 4 passing offense in the Football Championship Subdivision and averages 348 yards per game.
“They have receivers that can go get the football,” Thomas said. “Their offensive line is playing well and they’re rotating two quarterbacks to give you different looks. It’s smart football in the way they handle themselves and how they coach their guys.”
NSU (3-5, 0-3 Southland) will have another concern against the Bears---the return game.
Central Arkansas (5-3, 2-1) has an explosive return specialist in freshman receiver Jatavious Wilson.
Wilson ranks atop the FCS with an average of 38.4 yards per kickoff return and has ran back two kick returns for scores.
This does not bode well for the Demons, who have already been burned by Southern’s Willie Quinn and Southeastern Louisiana’s Xavier Roberson.
“We’re continually fixing things and we just have to stay what we’re doing,” Thomas said.
Conque understands the situation that the Demons are going through.
“Anytime you change punters and kickers, you’re going to go through some growing pains,” Conque said. “Coverage and blocking are important aspects of it too. They’re very sound in what they’re doing, though.”
The silver lining for NSU might be the resurgence of their offense---particularly the running game.
“Their offense makes you play out in space and they have some playmakers at running back and receiver.”
The Demons have established a balanced offense in their previous two games against Southeastern and Sam Houston State and have to thank running backs Daniel Taylor and Garrett Atzenweiler for giving the running game a boost.
Taylor ran for 59 yards on 10 carries against Sam Houston while not surrendering a negative play.
The balanced attack has allowed junior quarterback Zach Adkins to make plays as a dual-threat. The junior college transfer has contributed well, passing for 451 yards and running for 112.
“[Coach] Thomas is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to our college days,” Conque said. “I have a great respect for him and the programs he’s run. He’s got a renewed enthusiasm with the Demons. He has a bunch of new faces and he’s got them playing hard.”
The Demons’ renewed running game will get a test as they take on a stingy UCA run defense that is the best in the Southland.
“They are always solid on defense,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be a challenge for our guys to get up and get ready to play this game, but we’re still positive here. We’re still working and that’s the approach that we’re going to take.”
Conque will also look to extend UCA’s streak to four in a row.
“We have to go on the road and it’s going to be a huge challenge for this young team,” Conque said. “We only have one senior on offense right now. We have to clean some things up immediately to keep some momentum going.”
The Demons and Bears will square off tonight at 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN3.