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Late touchdown stops Govs’ upset attempt

Robert Smith/Tnsports360.com

By Colby Wilson

APSU Athletics Communications

CLARKSVILLE—A third-quarter offensive barrage put Austin Peay in position to topple 18th-ranked Central Arkansas, but a late Bears surge conspired to hand the Govs their first learning moment of the Mark Hudspeth Era in a 24-16 defeat.

The first half was a battle of wills in the trenches. Neither squad was able to put together anything sustainable, with just eight combined first-half first downs, six three-and-outs and no drive longer than seven plays or 62 yards. Even a short field—like the one the Govs got when Elijah Shepard recovered a muffed punt at the Central Arkansas 41-yard line—yielded no fruit for the Govs.

That long drive was posted by the Bears to close the half. With just 2:37 remaining in the half, the Bears went down the field and booted a 25-yard field goal as the first half expired to take a 3-0 lead into the half.

The second half, well… the second half was a different story entirely.

After Jeremiah Oatsvall went down in the first half, it took JaVaughn Craig a few drives to really get going, but once he did he was precise in leading the Govs down the field. Following an early Central Arkansas score to give the visitors a 10-0 lead, Craig coolly marched the Govs 60 yards in eight plays, chewing up 50 of those on a first-play strike to DeAngelo Wilson, to give Logan Birchfield a 39-yard field goal try that he successfully converted to get the Govs on the board.

Then the defense took over. On third-and-one, Matthew Gayle got loose in the backfield and dropped Kierre Crossley for a five-yard loss to force a Bears punt. This time, Craig was less methodical—on the second play from scrimmage, he hit Baniko Harley on a post and the Birmingham native broke a tackle and raced for the end zone. When all was said and done, Harley had his first receiving score of the year and the Govs had tied the game in just over five minutes of play.

Momentum was swinging Austin Peay’s way, and the Govs defense capitalized. On Central Arkansas’ first play on the ensuing possession, James Tobin snuck in on Breylin Smith’s blindside and obliterated the Bears quarterback, forcing a fumble that was scooped up by Shaun Whittinghill. Although Austin Peay didn’t make much headway after picking the ball up on the Central Arkansas 21-yard line, Birchfield sent another kick through the sticks, this time from 32 yards out, to give the Govs a 13-10 lead.

The Govs didn’t use a game-changing turnover to get the ball back on their next possession, but instead forced a Central Arkansas three-and-out and watched Wilson take the punt back 22 yards into UCA territory. Ahmaad Tanner cleared 24 yards on three carries to close the third quarter and Craig opened the fourth with a 13-yard strike to Keenan Barnes for a touchdown… that was flagged for an illegal formation. The Govs were forced to settle for another Birchfield field goal but were agonizingly close to taking a 10-point lead.

The Bears would retake the lead on the following drive, a quick five-play affair that nevertheless covered 95 yards, the last 43 on a Smith to Lujuan Winningham hook-up for a score.

Just as quickly as the offensive fireworks started, they hit a lull over the next three series, each of which went nowhere, two ending in a punt and the last an Austin Peay turnover on downs on a drive that started on the Govs one-yard line and needed a 20-yard Devin Stuart-to-Prince Momodu connection on fourth-and-10 to keep hope alive.

Central Arkansas took the ball with 2:39 to play and in three plays, the Bears had found the end-zone—Smith to Winningham again, for 18 yards. That left the Govs 1:42 to make a desperation drive.

Craig—who was thrown into a tough situation and responded with a 14-for-30, 185-yard day passing and led the Govs with 11 carries for 63 yards on the ground—began the march with a quick-hitter to Wilson for 10 yards. On fourth-and-three, he completed a gutsy nine-yarder to Harley to keep hope alive. But with time winding down, needing to make something happen on third-and-six, Craig’s desperation pass was picked off and with that, the Bears were able to escape Fortera Stadium with a victory.

Shaking off a loss to a nationally-ranked foe, the Govs now look ahead to Mercer, who throttled Presbyterian 45-7 on Saturday and stand an outside chance of being nationally ranked after receiving votes in the STATS FCS Top-25 poll last week.

Hear it from Hudspeth

On the quarterback change affecting the offense

“I think it being such a quick, sudden change, it had an effect. We had to get a feel for what we thought he could do. After we were able to make some adjustments at halftime, with some protections and things we wanted to do offensively, we were able to open it up and were able to get 16 points.”

On converting on third down

“There aren’t a lot of great calls for third-and-nine or third-and-10. You’ve got to stay in the 1-to-3 range where you have most of the playbook available and we didn’t do a good job of that. It got better there in the second half, but just not enough.”

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