(STATS) - After a memorable regular season that resulted in the program's first playoff appearance in four years, the FCS Playoff Committee rewarded Central Arkansas with a first-round matchup against a team that's no stranger to postseason success.
Illinois State appeared to be playing its way out of postseason consideration during a four-game losing streak that dropped the proud program to 2-4 on Oct. 8. The Redbirds then rallied to win four of five down the stretch to earn a trip for a third straight season.
No. 14 Central Arkansas will try to bounce back after its eight-game winning streak came to an end in the regular-season finale Saturday when it hosts a playoff game on the purple and gray stripes at Estes Stadium for the first time at the Division I level.
"This was definitely a good pick-me-up to be able to host a first-round game," UCA coach Steve Campbell told the team's official website. "To be able to play at home is big. We're excited about the opportunity, understanding that Illinois State is an outstanding football team. But we're excited about the opportunity to play again, and to play at home."
The Bears (9-2) finished second to top-ranked Sam Houston State at 8-1 in the Southland Conference following a 59-23 road loss to the unbeaten Bearkats. UCA fell 24-16 to Georgia Southern in the second round during its last postseason appearance in 2012.
Carlos Blackman (559 yards, 4 TDs) and Antwon Wells (482 yards, 8 TDs) have led a balanced running game that led the Southland with 203.1 yards per game. The Bears have four other players who rushed for at least 199 yards and two scores during the regular season.
The Redbirds (6-5) might be most concerned with dual-threat quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, who has thrown for an average of 242.5 yards with 17 touchdowns while also running for 199 yards and four scores. The junior, however, has tossed five picks over his last three games after having only three over his first eight.
"He athletic and he's really dangerous on the run," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said. "When he's scrambling, that's when he becomes a real problem because they can run at receiver and separate themselves."
All-conference selection Desmond Smith has been Hildebrand's top target in the passing game, racking up 61 receptions for 808 yards and six touchdowns. The senior wideout was one of the bright spots against Sam Houston with nine catches for 73 yards and a score.
Illinois State has been solid defensively, ranking fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in total defense (342.7 yards allowed per game) and fourth against the run (132 yards allowed per game). Defensive back Davontae Harris leads the conference with 12 pass break-ups, while linebacker B.J. Bello has team highs of six sacks and nine tackles for loss.
The Redbirds are coming in with something to prove after they were considered the last team to get into the field. They finished 4-4 in the tough MVFC, but knocked off then-No. 11 South Dakota State and then-No. 19 Western Illinois during their late push.
"We're a nationally renowned football program and we expect to be in the playoffs," said Spack, who insists his squad is the healthiest it's been all season. "I think we earned it by our resume and the league we play in. We think we absolutely earned it."
This is an unprecedented third consecutive postseason trip for Illinois State, which lost to North Dakota State in the 2014 national championship game and fell to Richmond in last year's quarterfinals. The Redbirds are one of four MVFC teams in the postseason, joining No. 1 overall seed NDSU, No. 8 seed and MVFC regular-season champion SDSU and Youngstown State.
"You're going to play a very, very sound football team every time you take on a team from that conference," Campbell said. "That's what you do know. Everyone refers to them as the SEC of the FCS, so you kind of know what you're getting when a team comes out of there."
Illinois State quarterback Jake Kolbe has come into his own over the final stretch with 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions over the past five games. The sophomore had thrown seven TDs and four picks over his first six contests.
Star receiver Anthony Warrum has totaled 15 receptions for 285 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games, while senior Jamal Towns has emerged as the top threat in the backfield with 349 rushing yards on 7 per carry over the last three.
Since averaging 15.4 points in a five-game stretch in September and October, Illinois State has scored 32.2 per game over its past five.
Central Arkansas led the Southland with 20.9 points allowed per game and topped the nation with just 67.9 rushing yards allowed, though the Bears defense was exposed in surrendering nearly 60 points against the high-powered Bearkats.
The Redbirds won 18-3 at Hancock Stadium in the only previous meeting in 2006, UCA's first year at the Division I level.