For most of the past two years, Sam Houston State had dominated the Southland Conference. Even though Central Arkansas had won 17 combined games in 2015 and 2016, the scores with the Bearkats weren't even close. Try 101 to 36 combined.
That trend changed several days ago, and one of the FCS' best quarterbacks — UCA's Hayden Hildebrand — has had a front-row seat for the ups and the downs.
It's been all about balance on offense for UCA. Carlos Blackman and Kierre Crossley are the two-headed brickwall breaker. And as for Hildebrand's receivers in the passing game? It's just like shopping for tools at the Conway (Ark.) Lowes on Hwy. 64 — there are a ton of brands to choose from that will get the job done. Maybe that's why Hildebrand is rated No. 5 in the FCS nation for passing efficiency.
"I have a lot of faith in a lot of different guys, part of that is our scheme and a tribute to a lot of our players – we have a lot of unselfish football players on our team," Hildebrand told HERO Sports. "I'm not afraid to throw it to 10 different receivers if we have to. Just whoever is going to be open, they're going to catch it and get the job done."
The numbers don't lie — six different players have at least 100 yards receiving through five games, but none has more than 300. Keying on one of them is a slippery slope. Brandon Cox and Cedric Battle will torch you for more than 20 yards per catch, while Lester Wells is a junior college transfer who actually had his most productive game against Kansas State in week one. You just never know who is going to hit you, and that's a testament to what UCA does and how three-year starter Hildebrand executes it.
But let's not forget the defense. Through nearly three quarters against Sam Houston State, it had pinned the Bearkats back to only 17 points and stud defensive back Tremon Smith picked off a Jeremiah Briscoe pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. Smith already has 4 INTs in 5 games. SHSU did rally some late, but it wasn't enough as UCA was able to counter when it mattered to hold on 41-30. Considering Sam's ability to hang a bundle of points on a team in a blink — as it did last year to everybody, including to UCA — it was a stellar defensive effort.
FCS PLAYER COMPARE: UCA stud DB Tremon Smith against any other FCS DB
UCA is tough in the red-zone on defense, and does a great job when it comes to turnover margin. It plays in a conference that definitely whips the ball around, so for it to be a defense that ranks in the top third in most defensive categories is a testament to what's happening in Conway. Last year, that defense had a lot to do with the 10-3 finish and the team's FCS Playoff berth and first-round win.
Put it all together and you have a team that's staring at a potential 10-1 regular-season finish and a first-round bye as an FCS top eight seed. Yes, there are games left to be played, but UCA will be considered the favorite in all of them.
UCA coach Steve Campbell is proud of where his team is halfway through the season.
"Right now we're in the driver's seat in the conference," Campbell told HERO Sports. "But all it takes is to stub your toe once and you've fallen out of that spot. So this week … we only need to win one game, and that's the one right in front of us."