Colorado v. Central Arkansas – Preview

Colorado returns to Folsom Field in an odd position … as a favorite … in taking on the Central Arkansas. The Bears will become CU’s first ever Southland Conference opponent come Saturday night (6:00 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

The University of Colorado for many years refused to dip into the waters of Division 1-AA (FCS) for an opponent. The Buff Nation took great pride in its school not lowering itself to taking on “cupcake” opponents, and took great pleasure in chiding schools like Kansas State and Nebraska when they did so.

Then, seven years ago, Colorado became one of the last teams in the nation to take on a 1-AA opponent … and quickly found that it might have been a better idea to remain aloof. The Buffs, instead of dominating FCS competition, have posted a 1-2 record against such “lesser” foes.

Colorado (to my great and never-ending embarrassment) lost its first-ever game against a 1-AA opponent, falling 19-10 to Montana State in Dan Hawkins’ debut in 2006. Then, in 2008, the Buffs needed two touchdowns in the final 2:05 to edge Eastern Washington, 31-24. Finally, of course, there was the epic failure of the 30-28 loss to Sacramento State last season.

Saturday, Colorado takes on the Bears of Central Arkansas, a team arguably more talented than any of the three Big Sky teams CU has previously faced.

Can the Buffs continue on with the momentum gained with the 41-27 victory over Colorado State?

Or will the Buffs take a step back, reminding everyone – including perhaps themselves – that the road back to respectability is a very long road indeed?

T – Talent

Before we look at the players, there are a few things you need to know about their head coach, Clint Conque.

Clint Conque, in his 14th season at UCA, has taken the Bears to unprecedented heights at the NCAA Division I level.

NCAA Division I-AA playoff appearances? Check, back-to-back second-round participants. Southland Conference titles? Check, second in five seasons in 2012. All-SLC recognition? Check, 17 honorees. All-America recognition? Check, times three. SLC Coach of the Year honors? Check, for the second time in five years. National rankings? Check, Top ten in all the final FCS polls in 2012, and a No. 5 ranking this week.

Conque is looking for his 100th win as the coach at UCA (a little extra motivation for the team right there), the winningest coach in the 103-year history of UCA football (99-54) and is the dean of coaches in the Southland Conference.

This is no starry-eyed coach looking to move on to the next big thing … Conque is trying to build a dynasty right there in Conway, Arkansas, and a win over the Buffs would be quite the feather in his cap.

So, why are the Bears ranked 5th in the nation?

It all starts with quarterback Wynrick Smothers, who returns for his senior season after becoming the second Central Arkansas quarterback to be named Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year, following Nathan Brown (2007 and Player of the Year in 2008), who is now the Bears’ quarterbacks coach. Smothers threw for 3,103 yards and tied a school record with 31 touchdown passes while completing 64.9 percent of his passes, and gained another 449 yards on the ground with three rushing touchdowns.

His top target is junior Dezmin Lewis (6-4, 212), who caught 56 passes for 616 yards and six touchdowns last season. Transfers Justin Burdette from Southern Miss and Courtney Whitehead from Air Force will provide two more big targets.

Junior Willie Matthews will be the feature running back, with help from sophomore Blake Veasley.

The offensive line returns a load of experience from last season, led by senior All-SLC tackle Dominique Allen (6-3, 295), junior All-SLC tackle Cole Caruthers (6-4, 292) and sophomore Kyle Stouffer (6-7, 316).

The defense will be led by a former SLC Freshman of the Year in Jonathan Woodard, a 6-6, 271-pound defensive end who garnered national attention after last season and in the 2013 preseason. He will be joined up front by two seniors, end Markeith Gaines (6-0 265) and tackle Matt Hornbuckle (6-2, 281).

Senior linebacker Justin Heard led the Bears in tackles last season (100 total, 15 for loss) and heads an experienced group there. All-SLC safety Jestin Love, the SLC Freshman of the year three years ago, leads and active secondary that includes seniors Marcus Peters and Josh Jones at corner and senior Karl Brady and junior Marvin Mitchell at safety.

In all, Central Arkansas had five players named to 2013 preseason “Watch Lists.” They include defensive back Jestin Love, quarterback Wynrick Smothers, tight end Chase Dixon, defensive end Jonathan Woodard and kicker Eddie Camara. The Bears also had 12 players on the preseason All-Southland Conference teams, including nine on the first team.

Not household names nationally, but Central Arkansas is a team with talent and experience.

Underestimating them would be a huge mistake.

I – Intangibles

And it is unlikely that the Buffs will be accused of underestimating the Bears.

The Colorado coaching staff has had no trouble “staying grounded” after the big win over Colorado State. How long did MacIntyre and his staff celebrate their debut win at CU? Not very . . . maybe on the bus ride from Denver to Boulder. According to CUBuffs.com, MacIntyre said he and his coaches were in their offices at the Dal Ward Athletic Center until 5:45 a.m. on Monday getting an early preview of Central Arkansas. Said MacIntyre: “You watch them on tape and you forget about everything else.”

While the Bears have the 100th career victory for their coach to play for, Colorado has its own set of needs.

And it starts with respect.

Colorado won many converts in its 41-27 victory over the Rams, but much of that goodwill will evaporate with a loss to a 1-AA team. Central Arkansas is a very good 1-AA team, mind you, but a 1-AA team nonetheless.

If the Buff players had any reason to look past the Bears, that issue was taken care of in Manhattan, Kansas, and Corvallis, Oregon, last weekend.

No fewer than eight FCS teams beat FBS teams, a record for one weekend of play. While the North Dakota State over Kansas State and Eastern Washington over Oregon State games garnered the most attention, six other teams beat FBS schools last weekend, including several teams ranked below the Bears in this week’s FCS poll.

The Bison and Eagles did more than just beat an old and current rival, they reminded the Buffs that no FBS team is safe from upset.

Particularly not an FBS team which has won only five of its last 26 games.

Particularly not an FBS team which lost to a mediocre FCS team, Sacramento State, at home last season.

The Buffs won’t be accused of “eating the cheese” this week, Coach MacIntyre’s instructions on not getting too excited over winning their first game. “It’s only one game. There’s a lot more to go,” said quarterback Connor Wood. “I think the guys feel the excitement of winning, and we’re hungry for that again. We want to work, and take those steps to get that feeling again”.

P – Preparation / Schedule

This is a category which really does work against the Buffs this week.

Colorado had to take on an in-state rival last weekend. A rival which has its season made when it beats the Buffs. A rival which has an entire month to prepare for their “Super Bowl”.

As a result, the Buffs had no choice but to be prepared for whatever the Rams threw at them. The Buffs were successful at handling all of the Rams’ tricks, but there was absolutely no opportunity to look past Colorado State to the next game.

The Bears had no such difficulty.

Central Arkansas played its first game against The Incarnate Word. When I first saw that game on the schedule, I had to do a double, then a triple take.

Yep … The University of the Incarnate Word. The Cardinals (get it?) do exist, and play out of San Antonio, Texas. This is a team which is just dipping its toes into Division 1-AA for the first time.

The result of the opener, 58-7, Central Arkansas, was predictable. The Bears will roll over most of their Southland Conference opposition this fall, and the University of the Incarnate Word, were it to be asked to play in the Southland Conference, would be picked to finish last.

So the Bears had an opening game tune up, with little reason to prepare for, or show any new plays to, the Cardinals.

Like Colorado State, the Bears have actually had about a month to prepare for the Buffs.

Like Colorado State, beating Colorado would be their “Super Bowl”.

And it gets even worse …

Central Arkansas played the University of the Incarnate Word last Thursday, giving the Bears extra days to prepare for the Buffs. Meanwhile, Colorado is on a short week, having played on Sunday.

Not the best combination.

S – Statistics

One game’s worth of statistics on Central Arkansas isn’t going to give you much solid information, especially when your foe is someone named Incarnate Word.

So let’s look back at the Bears’ 2012 season, a 9-3 campaign which included road losses to Mississippi (49-27) and two 1-AA powers, Stephen F. Austin and Georgia Southern, with the latter being a 24-16 loss in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

What’s interesting about the numbers from Central Arkansas from last year is their efficiency on offense. The Bears were 10th in the nation in scoring (34.83 ppg.), but only 22nd in passing and 80th in rushing. It would appear that stopping quarterback Wynrick Smothers is the key, and not only by the Buff secondary having a good game. Containment will be crucial, as Smothers was second on the team in rushing last season.

On defense, the watchword again was efficiency. Central Arkansas was in the 50’s and 60’s in the national rankings in pass defense, rushing defense and total defense … but 39th (22.50 ppg.) in scoring defense. These numbers would suggest that the Bears’ defense, like their offense, takes advantage of opportunities, and beats teams where it matters most – on the scoreboard.

One last statistic to worry about … One of the highest national rankings Central Arkansas had last season (13th nationally) was in punt returns …

Since this is a big game for Central Arkansas – taking on an FBS school – I wanted to know how the Bears had fared previously against other 1-A schools.

As noted, the Bears lost to Ole Miss last season, 49-27, but please note that Central Arkansas held the halftime lead in that game, 20-14, before the Rebels rattled off 35 consecutive second half points to pull away.

In 2011, Central Arkansas lost 48-42 in overtime to Louisiana Tech, then of the Western Athletic Conference, and lost 53-24 to Arkansas State from the Sun Belt Conference.

In 2010, the Bears lost 41-14 to Tulsa, and in 2009 they lost to Hawai’i on the islands, 25-20.

Not great, but not bad. The halftime lead over Mississippi last season, though, should raise a few eyebrows.

Also, in looking through the Bears’ schedules, there are not a great deal of games played in the mountain west. Central Arkansas did lose a playoff game on the road against Montana in 2011, but otherwise they haven’t ventured to altitude too often.

Perhaps that could be an advantage for the Buffs – at least a psychological one. Coach Conque was quoted this week, when commenting on playing at altitude: “But the word about our place this week is hydration and it’s already started. The dry air at that altitude can drain you pretty quickly. Water contains oxygen and you need to keep oxygen in the body.”

Medical accuracy issues aside, it certainly doesn’t bother me if the Central Arkansas players and coaches have hydration and oxygen on their minds during the game.

At this embryotic stage of the Buffs’ resurgence, I’ll take any advantage CU can get …

4 Replies to “Central Arkansas – Preview”

  1. Reading this sobered me up from the Kool Aid buzz generated by the win over CSU. I tend to think we’re on the right track, but a lot of challenges still lie ahead, and no game should be considered easy….

  2. I get the point. UCA is scary. But some of that fear is the fact that they are a lesser division team and losing to them would be another black mark of humiliation.
    Still Lou Holtz would be proud of your dissertation here…..
    With apologies to Smothers the coach sounds like their most dangerous weapon. We have a coach now, however, who appears to put in up to 80 hours a week. A guy who leaves no stone unturned and knows what to do with what he finds underneath.
    Still my stomach churns as my wife isn’t completely convinced to make the switch to Dish. I’ll be streaming KOA for this one.

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