The degree of difficulty facing Northwestern State was steep enough on its own while visiting 15th-ranked Central Arkansas on Saturday night.
Add in personnel losses due to injuries and concussions before, and during the game, and it got much tougher for the Demons.
UCA asserted its advantages up front on both sides of the ball to steadily take command by halftime, and kept NSU at bay afterward in a 38-17 Southland Conference football decision at Estes Field.
The Demons dropped their fourth straight, and third in a row to a top 15-ranked FCS opponent, slipping to 2-5 overall and 1-4 in the Southland.
The Bears rose to 5-2 overall and jumped into a share of the lead in the Southland with a 4-1 league mark, posting 325 yards while powering to a 28-10 halftime lead. They finished with an even 500, 278 in the air on just 12 completions, a hefty 23.2 per reception.
Both teams played their third-team quarterbacks. For UCA it was by design, as redshirt freshman Luke Hales had stepped in three games ago. For NSU, true sophomore Kaleb Fletcher got his first action of 2018 by necessity.
Demons’ starter Shelton Eppler was unavailable, back home benched by a concussion sustained in last Saturday’s 42-28 loss to then-14th-ranked Sam Houston State. NSU played that game without No. 2 passer Clay Holgorsen, out with a concussion sustained a week earlier in a 28-10 loss to No. 12 Nicholls. Holgorsen was cleared to play at UCA, but managed only 15 snaps before returning to the sideline.
That was the focal challenge among numerous ones sending reserves into action, but it was UCA’s control of the line of scrimmage, ability to break big plays and execution on third down that were decisive. NSU coach Brad Laird dismissed the personnel issues but focused on other decisive factors.
“It’s the seventh game. Every team has injuries. We’ve got to get the guys on the field to play better than we did tonight,” he said. “Give UCA credit, they’re a good football team and they played very well. Our guys played with tremendous effort for 60 minutes, but we didn’t win third down, and we gave up too many big plays while not converting on third down ourselves.”
The Bears went 8 of 15 on third down, to a season-worst 2 of 14 for NSU. The Demons started their fifth different offensive line combination in as many weeks and netted just 32 yards on the ground, while getting 232 upstairs, with Fletcher going 16 of 29 for 187 yards.
He scampered seven yards on the first snap for a score after redshirt freshman end Rashuad Powell forced a fumble that sophomore tackle Damien Thompson recovered just before halftime. Fletcher fired a 53-yard strike for NSU’s other TD, with Jaylen Watson making the grab on a post route and dancing by two defenders with just 39 seconds remaining.
“Kaleb got more comfortable as the game went on,” said Laird. “When you haven’t taken a live rep in a game this year, and you’re going against a top-15 team on the road, it might take some time, but he settled down and competed and made some plays.”
Said Fletcher: “It took a couple series to get rid of the jitters. I knew all week I was going to get some snaps, but the way it worked out, I got a lot more plays than we expected.”
UCA erupted for seven first-half explosive plays over 20 yards, totaling 240 yards, while bolting to leads of 21-0 and 28-3. Hales threw for scores of 31, 53, 15 and 25 yards in the first two quarters.
The Demons were scoreless and punted each time while getting into the Bears’ side of the field, but no closer than the 38, on three of their first four possessions. NSU’s first points came on a 35-yard Austyn Fendrick field goal following a tip and interception at the UCA 20 by Ryan Reed midway through the second quarter.
The Bears drove 71 yards to make it 35-10 on their first series after halftime, with Hales finding halfback Carlos Blackman for a 25-yard score, and NSU was unable to threaten until the game’s closing moments.
“We’ve been through a tough stretch and we have kept competing,” said Laird. “Disappointed, frustrated, you betcha, we are. But we are still fighting and we are going to get energy from all the homecoming activities next week, and we’ll come out next Saturday night in Turpin Stadium determined to get it going our way.”
NSU will play Houston Baptist (1-6, 0-5), a 42-14 home-field loser to Stephen F. Austin, in the Demons’ homecoming contest at 6 next Saturday.