BEAUMONT, Texas — In his first career start, junior quarterback Ryan Howard led the No. 20 University of Central Arkansas Bears to a come-from-behind 26-24 victory over the Lamar Cardinals on Saturday night at Provost Umphrey Stadium.

Howard, playing in place of All-Southland Conference quarterback Wynrick Smothers who is out for the season with a broken ankle, completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Courtney Whitehead with just 2:53 remaining to give the Bears the two-point advantage. UCA’s defense then came up with the game-winning stop, forcing an incomplete pass on fourth and 2 at the UCA 33 with 1:07 left.

"This was an emotional win, a huge win,’ said UCA head coach Clint Conque. "This was a program win. Our program is at a point now where we need to be able to come on the road, regardless of the adversity, and handle these situations. I really challenged out players in person, in their face, via twitter, social media, whatever… to show some courage and heart today, and they certainly did that for 60 minutes.

"This was a just a great team win, and a great win for our football program. They showed tremendous heart and courage and desire and determination. I just couldn’t be more proud right now of a group of young men.’

The victory came at the expense of another season-ending injury, this one to All-SLC senior tight end Chase Dixon, who broke his right fibula in the third quarter. The injury is UCA’s fifth serious injury of the season, and comes on heels of Smothers’ injury just a week earlier.

"That was a very emotional win tonight,’ said Conque. "We lost another one of our leaders in Chase Dixon. I don’t know if we’re living under a black cloud or what, but it’s just tough right now. But what a courageous effort by a bunch of guys, I’m not even sure who the heck was out there half the time, quite frankly.’

The Bears (4-3, 1-1) managed only a 42-yard field goal by junior Eddie Camara in the first half and trailed 10-3 at halftime. The Cardinals (3-4, 0-2) racked up 202 yards of offense in the first half and scored on a 42-yard field goal by Alex Ball early in the second quarter and a 10-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Bell to Reggie Begelton with 1:27 to play in the half.

UCA managed just 128 yards of offense in the first half. Howard was 7 of 16 passing for 55 yards. The Bears failed to capitalize on a first-quarter Lamar fumble forced by Ricky Wyatt, despite Marcus Peters recovering at the 43.

But Howard came out like a seasoned veteran in the third period, completing 8 of 9 passes for 122 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the quarter. Howard connected with Dixon from 19 yards out with 12:31 to play in the period, then after Lamar took a 17-10 lead, Howard hit UCA’s other tight end Thomas Hart with a 3-yard score with 3:22 to go in the third.

UCA took its first lead of the game on Camara’s 31-yard field goal at 12:04 of the fourth quarter, but Lamar re-took the lead on a 5-yard pass from Caleb Berry to Begelton with 6:34 to play. That left the Bears more than enough time to drive 90 yards in 16 plays for the game-winner.

Whitehead was called for an offensive pass interference in the right corner of the end zone on the10th play of the drive, but quickly made amends. Backed up to the 28 after the penalty, Howard completed consecutive passes to Blake Veasley and Kelton Warren out of the backfield, down to the 23. After a timeout, Howard tossed one to the left corner of the end zone and Whitehead went up in traffic and pulled it in for the touchdown.

"It was a great night but credit goes to everybody,’ said Howard, a fourth-year junior from Vestavia Hills, Ala. "The offensive line, receivers, running backs, tight ends, the defense, the kickers… The receivers made some great catches on third down. Courtney had two great catches when we needed it.

"After he got that pass interference, we came over here on the side and I said ‘Courtney, shake it off, get your head right, we’re coming back to you.’ Sure enough, he came up big. He went up and got it, it got tipped and he concentrated and came down with it.’

Whitehead, a sophomore from Athens, Texas, caught four passes for 100 yards. Howard and sophomore quarterback Taylor Reed completed passes to 13 different receivers, with freshmen Warren and Jose Moore catching their first career passes.

"We’re seeing our receiving corps come of age,’ said Conque. "The maturation of Courtney Whitehead, You could certainly see the big-play talents that he brings.’

The Bears return home next weekend for Homecoming, hosting Stephen F. Austin in a 3 p.m. kickoff.