His dynamic performance accounted for all five Bears scores, with the junior throwing for four of them and piling up 322 yards of total offense in a milestone 35-14 victory for the 13th-ranked winners.
The Bears (8-2 overall, closing out their Southland season with a 6-1 mark) locked up the conference’s automatic FCS playoff slot and at least a share of the league title, their first since stepping up from Division II in 2007.
The Demons (4-5, 2-3) lost to a nationally-ranked team for the sixth straight time since their 24-19 upset of the then 22nd-rated Bears on the same field two seasons ago. It was UCA’s 10th straight home win since that contest.
NSU will host the Southland’s defending champion, No. 4 Sam Houston State, in a 3 o’clock game at Turpin Stadium next Saturday afternoon.
The Bears got touchdown passes of 20, 33, 26 and 42 yards from Smothers along with a 57-yard run.
“We hadn’t given up the long ball like that all year, but they beat us down the field tonight,” said fourth-year Demons’ coach Bradley Dale Peveto. “He made some really good throws, they made a couple of great catches, and they just beat us like nobody else has.
“That’s a good football team. They whipped us. My hat’s off to UCA,” said Peveto. “Our guys played their guts out but we didn’t keep them from making more plays than we did.”
Smothers had 255 yards of total offense and was responsible for all four first-half touchdowns by the Bears, including a back-breaking 26-yard pass to Dominque Croom with 15 seconds left in the second quarter for a 28-14 advantage.
“That was huge,” said Peveto. “If we could have gone in one score down it’s an entirely different game. But we didn’t take advantage when we had a chance to get it tied or get it closer, and they took it down the field making plays like a championship team does.”
Northwestern moved the ball impressively for the game’s first 20 minutes but ran out of gas after drawing within 21-14 on a 1-yard Brad Henderson scramble with 9:32 to go in the second quarter. The Demons netted just 13 yards on their last 11 plays of the half, notably failing to take advantage of the Bears’ first turnover, a fumble forced by Anthony Gilbert and recovered by Brashard Booker at the UCA 36 with 2:48 before halftime.
UCA forced a three-and-out, took over with 1:56 left, and sharply moved 84 yards on seven plays, the last being Smothers’ third TD toss of the game. He opened with a 20-yarder to Brett Soft just 3:32 into play after a long punt return. Early in the second period, he laced a 33-yarder to Croom on the heels of breaking a 57-yard run for a score on the previous series, and the Bears were up 21-7.
Northwestern mounted its most impressive drive of the season for a 7-7 tie. Henderson led a 17-play, 84-yard march and capped it with a 3-yard keeper, but Smothers broke his long scoring run just over a minute later to push UCA ahead 14-7.
The Demons didn’t let UCA hold a two-touchdown lead for long in the second quarter. After Croom’s first TD catch, Northwestern covered 70 yards in 11 snaps, with Henderson’s scramble on third down wrapping it up.
But UCA’s defense woke up and stymied NSU for the rest of the half, making the critical stand late in the half following the fumble recovery. Smothers had a career-high 93 yards rushing by halftime and steered the Bears to 5-of-7 third-down success.
Both teams slowed down after halftime. UCA took command on Smothers’ 42-yard bomb to Dezmin Lewis with 4:06 left in the third for a 21-point advantage and kept the visitors contained for the entire second half, as NSU didn’t threaten to score until the waning moments of play.