CONWAY, Arkansas – Marcus Wiltz ran for a career-high 181 yards and McNeese State scored a school-record 35 second quarter points as the Cowboys cruised to a 59-28 victory over Central Arkansas in the Southland Conference opener for both teams.
The win moved No. 11/14 McNeese to 5-1 on the season and 1-0 in league play while No. 14/11 UCA fell to 2-3 and 0-1. The Cowboys reclaimed the Red Beans and Rice Bowl trophy that had been in UCA's possession the past three seasons and won for the first time in Conway. UCA suffered its first loss on its purple and gray striped field in 13 tries.
"I thought we really played well in all phases of the game," said McNeese coach Matt Viator. "The offense did a really nice job of moving the ball down the field while the defense made some really big plays for us."
McNeese rolled up a season-high 595 offensive yards – 272 on the ground and 323 from the air. Quarterback Cody Stroud completed 13 of 19 passes for 277 yards and three scores. Diontae Spencer completed his only pass of the game when he found Jereon McGilvery for 46 yards on a trick play that gave the Cowboys a 28-21 lead with 4:12 to play in the first half.
"I played some quarterback in high school and had a few touchdown passes, but that was my first in college," said Spencer who also made two catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns.
UCA finished with 644 yards of offense but was held to just 148 yards of offense in the second half as the Cowboys sacked Bears' quarterback Wynrick Smothers three times and picked him off three other times in the contest.
Perhaps the turning point of the game came midway through the second quarter with the game tied at 14-14 and UCA with a second down at the McNeese 3-yard line, Smothers floated an off-balance pass near the side that was intercepted by Ryan Bronson and returned 98 yards for the touchdown and a 21-14 McNeese lead.
UCA quickly tied the score at 21-all on six plays that took just 2:19, Spencer's pass to McGilvery gave McNeese the lead for good at 28-21 with 4:12 to play in the quarter.
On the ensuing drive, McNeese's defense forced UCA into a turnover on downs at the Cowboys' 24-yard line. Three plays later Javaris Murray scored from 12 yards out to make it 35-21 on a play that was set up by a 68-yard pass from Stroud to Murray on the previous play.
The Cowboys got another opportunity to score after Chris Loveless batted down a Smothers' pass and was picked off by Kevin Dorn when on the first play, Stroud connected with Spencer down the middle for a 40-yard touchdown and a 42-21 lead going into the half.
McNeese opened the second half with the ball but on a 3rd-and-1, Wiltz had the ball taken away from him as he was going to the ground by Dillion Winfrey who returned it 35 yards for a potential score. However, that touchdown would be called back when Winfrey was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct when he started celebrating at the 4-yard line. The Bears eventually scored to cut the lead to 42-28 with 11:52 to play in the third quarter.
The Cowboys went 3-and-out on their next possession but was able to keep UCA out of the endzone as kicker Eddie Camara hooked a 40-yard field goal.
Stroud followed with a 28-yard pass to Wiltz for a touchdown with 5:53 to play in the quarter to make it 49-28. After that, UCA's final five possessions of the game ended with three punts, an interception and a turnover on downs as the Cowboys got a 3-yard score from Dillon Long and a 39-yard field goal by Ryan Rome to close out the scoring.
Smothers finished 35 of 65 for 484 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions for the Bears. He set a school record with 65 pass attempts and 524 yards of total offense.
McNeese will have an open week next week and will return to action on Oct. 19 when it hosts Sam Houston State in its Homecoming contest.
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