CONWAY — The University of Central Arkansas Bears closed out a frustrating, injury-plagued season with a rousing, entertaining 49-31 victory over No. 9 Sam Houston State on “Senior Day” at a cold and windy First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
The Bears (7-5, 4-3), who forced a season-high six turnovers, ran away from the Bearkats (8-4, 4-3) in the first half, to the tune of a 42-10 lead at halftime. Junior quarterback Ryan Howard threw four touchdown passes in the first 30 minutes, tying his season high. Those covered 29 yards to junior Dezmin Lewis twice, 71 yards to junior Damien Watts and 24 yards to redshirt freshman Desmond Smith.
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Reed also got in on the scoring with a 10-yard touchdown pass to junior running back Willie Matthews. Senior cornerback Marcus Peters put the exclamation point on the first half explosion by returning an interception 54 yards for another score with just 45 seconds to play.
The Bears finished the half with 367 yards of offense, while the defense intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble.
But Sam Houston, the two-time defending FCS runnerup, found its offensive rhythm in the second half, aided by some costly penalties on the Bears, and scored 21 consecutive points to close the gap to 42-31 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Senior quarterback Brian Bell, who did not start because of injured shoulder, came on and completed 30 of 63 passes on the night for 336 yards and four touchdowns, but was intercepted four times.
Senior safety Jestin Love recovered a fumbled punt with 7:24 remaining in the game. Peters then stopped the Bearkats with another interception with 4:39 left, and senior linebacker Justin Heard did the same thing at the 3:05 mark. UCA added one more touchdown for good measure after Love’s recovery, with Willie Matthews going in from the 1 to set the final.
Heard finished with a team-high 13 tackles, ending his career with six straight double-figure tackle games. He finished with a team-high 95 tackles on the season in just nine games to lead the Bears for the second straight season.
Sophomore Darius Reed recorded UCA’s season-high fourth interception against the Bearkats. Matthews was UCA’s leading receiver with a career-high 8 catches for 55 yards. Watts grabbed three for 127 yards, while Lewis had five for 74 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
UCA’s defense held senior running back Timothy Flanders to 77 yards on 21 carries. Flanders, a two-time SLC Player of the Year, moved into the Top 10 in career rushing yards in the conference. Senior Torrance Williams caught 13 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.
The Bears, who shared the SLC championship with the Bearkats last season, have now won two straight in the series and lead 5-3 overall.
UCA said goodbye to 12 seniors Saturday, a group that has won 32 games, won an SLC title, won nine games twice in a season and made two FCS Playoff appearances. They include: Peters, Heard, Love, Markeith Gaines, Josh Jones, Matt Hornbuckle, Radarius Winston, Kirby O’Meara, Chase Dixon, Wynrick Smothers, Karl Brady and Dominique Allen.
Lewis wore jersey No. 89 in honor of Dixon on Saturday.