BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Samford’s defense was all it was talked up to be, and it’s offense may have been even better Thursday night, as the Bulldogs downed the University of Central Arkansas Bears 45-16 in the season opener at Seibert Stadium.
Samford rolled up 536 total yards of offense — 342 in the first half — and averaged 7.9 yards per play on the night. UCA tallied 462 yards against a stout Bulldogs’ defense but took 103 plays to get that total. UCA senior quarterback Taylor Reed completed a school 43 passes and his 63 attempts were the second most in school history. Reed threw for 312 yards but no touchdowns as he had to shoulder the entire load with an early injury to sophomore backup Hayden Hildebrand.
Samford senior quarterback Michael Eubank, a transfer from Arizona State, wsa 21 of 37 for 372 yards and four touchdowns for the Bulldogs. Receiver Kelvin McKnight caught six passes for 157 yards and a touchdown.
"We just didn’t play very well," said UCA head coach Steve Campbell. "We just got beat on both sides of the line of scrimmage. And I think we got beat at a lot of different positions. We just didn’t play anywhere close to the way we neeeded to play where we’d have a chance to beat a good football team. We didn’t have them ready. We need to play better. We need to have them ready to go and we weren’t."
UCA was penalized 12 times for 183 yards, while Samford was called five times for just 56 yards. Samford’s defense recorded 14 lost-yardage plays, including six sacks. UCA lost several players to injury throughout the game, including Hildebrand, senior receiver Courtney Whitehead and sophomore running back Dominique Thomas. Junior receiver Desmond Smith caught a career-high 11 passes for 75 yards, while Thomas led UCA’s rushers with 69 yards and a touchdown on just ninc carries. Senior punter Matt Spencer averaged 42.1 yards on nine punts for one of the few bright spots.
"They are good on defense," Campbell said. "I knew they were good on defense. We had to kick a field goal when we needed to score a touchdown. And then we wound up turning it over. We had a chance to score 30 points. They held TCU to 48 (last year) and held Auburn to 31. I wasn’t thinking we were going to score 50 or 40, but I was thinking more than 16.
"And we had opportunities to score more than 16. We just didn’t execute and didn’t do what we need to do to get into that 30 to 31 range to give ourselves a chance to win the football game."
On the Bears’ second possession of the game, Thomas, a Jacksonville, Ala. product, slipped up the middle and went 29 yards for the first touchdown of the season. Senior Jace Denker made it a 7-0 lead with the point after. But the Bulldogs answered quickly, using just three plays to tie the game, with a 55-yard touchdown pass from Eubank to Karel Hamilton at the 5:03 mark of the first quarter.
Early in the second period, the Bulldogs struck again through the air with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Eubank to Vaquan Small. The PAT mad it 14-7 with 10:56 to play in the first half. Samford then found the end zone on the ground as Denzel Williams went 49 yards to five the Bulldogs a 21-10 lead with 9:09 left in the half.
With Reed connecting with Smith and Jatavious Wilson on a couple of key passes, the Bears drove down to the Samford 4 but the drive stalled. Senior Jace Denker made a 29-yard field goal to cut the deficit 21-10 with 6:29 to play in the half. Eubank struck once more before halftime, hitting Calvin McKnight with a 66-yard scoring strike, good for a 28-10 lead.
Freshman Matt Cummins of Conway then blasted his first career field goal, tying for the third-longest field goal in UCA history, hitting from 50 yards as time expired to close the gap to 28-13 at the break.
The Bulldogs, who gained 342 yards in the first half — 266 through the air — pushed their lead to 31-13 midway through the third quarter, aided by a 50-yard run from scrimmage by Williams. Anthony Pistelli connected on a 21-yard field goal with 4:55 left in the period. Denker answered for UCA with a 34-yarder that made it 31-16 with 13:33 to play.
Samford’s K’rondis Larry broke off a 54-yard touchdown run down the left sideline with 12:41 to put the game away at 38-16. Eubank tossed his final scoring pass of the night, a 16-yarder to Williams with 9:13 to play.
"We’re not going to be successful when we throw it 63 times," said Campbell. "That’s now who we we are, it’s not who we want to be. And it’s not putting ourselves in the best position."
Sophomore safety George Odum led UCA’s defense with nine total tackles, including two for loss. Junior transfer Devin Spurlock had his first interception in the third quarter and finished with seven tackles.
UCA heads to Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, Sept. 12 to face FBS Oklahoma State.