CONWAY — The University of Central Arkansas Bears piled up the yards Saturday but the McNeese State Cowboys piled up the points and became the first team to win on the Purple and Gray Stripes at Estes Stadium.
The No. 14/11 Cowboys (5-1, 1-0) broke a 21-21 tie late in the second quarter by scoring three consecutive touchdowns and used that quick spurt to cruise to a 59-28 victory in the opening Southland Conference matchup for both teams. The home loss was the first for UCA since the 2010 season and came despite record-breaking numbers from the offensive unit.
The No. 11/14 Bears (2-3, 0-1) ran a school-record 106 offensive plays and gained 644 yards of offense, the first time to top 600 yards since a game against Texas State in 2007. UCA senior quarterback Wynrick Smothers, the SLC Offensive Player of the Year in 2012, set the UCA single-game record for total offense with 524 yards, breaking Nathan Brown’s record set against Presbyterian in 2005. He finished 35 of a school-record 65 attempts for 484 yards, and added 40 rushing yards. However, Smothers was intercepted three times, with the Cowboys scoring off all three miscues.
The Cowboys were much more efficient on offense, averaging a whopping 9.2 yards per play, gaining 595 yards of offense on just 65 plays.
The Bears, who entered the game a perfect 12-0 on "The Stripes," drove 75 yards in seven plays to open the game with a 1-yard touchdown run by receiver Jacoby Walker for a quick 7-0 UCA lead. The Cowboys answered with a 41-yard pass from Cody Stroud to Diontae Spencer to tie it at the 10:25 mark of the first quarter.
Blake Veasley scored from the 2 for UCA in the opening minute of the second quarter but Marcus Wiltz came back with a 3-yard touchdown run for the Cowboys to knot it again at 14-14. MSU free safety Ryan Bronson picked off Smothers at the 2 and returned it a school-record 98 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 leaed with 8:33 left in the second period.
Smothers hit Damian Watts with a 39-yard touchdown pass to tie it before the flood gates opened for the Cowboys. A halfback pass from Spencer to Jereon McGilvery covered 46 yards for the first score, followed by Javaris Murray’s 12-yard run. Stroud then capped the 35-point quarter with a 40-yard TD pass to Spencer, good for a 42-21 lead in the final minute of the half. The three MSU touchdowns all came in the final 4:12 of the first half.
The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, with UCA backup quarterback Ryan Howard hitting senior tight end Chase Dixon with a 3-yard scoring pass that closed the gap to 42-28 early in the period. But the Cowboys scored the game’s final 17 points to pull away down the stretch.
Stroud completed 13 of 19 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns for the Cowboys, who were coming off a 41-6 loss at fifth-ranked Northern Iowa last Saturday. Wiltz finished with a career-high 181 rushing yards on just 17 attempts, an average of 10.6 points per rush.
Dixon, a senior from Fort Smith, caught a career-high nine passes for a career-high 149, while Courtney Whitehead had career highs of 8 catches and 108 yards. Willie Matthews had a season-high 80 rushing yards on 15 carries.
On the defensive side, sophomore middle linebacker D.J. Holland recorded a career-high 10 tackles, including two for loss and also forced a fumble. Sophomore cornerback Dillion Winfrey forced two fumbles, returning one for an apparent touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, but a penalty was called for celebrating before he reached the end zone, nullifying the score. UCA did score on the drive, on Howard’s first touchdown pass of the season.
The Bears continue their two-game homestand next week, hosting Nebraska-Kearney at 3 p.m.