All good things come to an end.
Austin Peay football was riding a four-game win streak, heading into its first ASUN road game and its defense was leading the way with impressive second-half stinginess. But Central Arkansas scored 21 points in the third quarter to rout the Govs 49-20 Saturday in Conway, Arkansas.
The Bears (2-3, 1-0 ASUN) had all phases working, forcing two turnovers on defense, scoring on run plays, pass plays and on special teams while putting up 311 yards on offense and holding Austin Peay (4-2, 1-1), that was averaging 38 points a game, to just two touchdowns, one of which came in the final two minutes of the game.
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Was aggressive start a mistake?
Govs coach Scotty Walden is always going bet on his defense. That likely prompted his decision to go for it on fourth down on the Govs' first possession of the game deep in its own territory. Central Arkansas stuffed the run play and needed only four plays to go 32 yards for the game's first score. It was the first time the Bears scored a first-quarter touchdown this season.
The Govs would go for it on fourth down again on its second possession with the same result. While the Govs' defense held Central Arkansas to just seven points, minus-7 yards rushing and 99 total by halftime, the confidence the Bears gained from those first two possessions was evident for the remainder of the game.
"I would change that call," Walden said about his decision to go for it on fourth down on that first possession. "But that's football. We live and die by our own sword and it didn't go out way. When our defense is playing as elite as they were playing, that gives us the right to play a little more aggressive."
Wheels fall off in third quarter
Central Arkansas shrugged off whatever momentum Austin Peay had entering the break, trailing 7-6, by putting up 21 points in quick fashion in the third quarter. The Govs hadn't given up a third-quarter score this season, but the Bears erased that stat convincingly.
They hit on a 44-yard touchdown pass, recovered a Peay fumble, scored on a 1-yard run then returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown in the span of five minutes. The Govs were playing catch-up from that point, and with an offense struggling, a 28-6 deficit was nearly insurmountable.
No room for Mike DiLiello
After DiLiello ran all over Eastern Kentucky for 181 yards last week, the Middle Tennessee State transfer had no room to run against Central Arkansas who dropped the Austin Peay quarterback for minus-14 yards rushing and sacked him three times. DiLiello was pressured throughout the game and was unable to step into most of his deep throws that left the ball hanging in the air and easily discarded by the Bears' secondary.
"(Central Arkansas) is a smart football team," DiLiello said. "They knew we'd try to run the ball with all of our backs and myself included. They did a good job of mixing up their coverages but nothing that we weren't expecting. But for us, it's all about getting into that rhythm and finding that tempo. We really couldn't do that."
DiLiello finished 29-of-45 passing for 248 yards while Trey Goodman had 10 receptions for 84 yards. Austin Peay scored off a 92-yard punt return from Kam Thomas in the third quarter and a Josh Samuel TD late in the game.
What does it mean?
It means Austin Peay won't be undefeated in its first season in the ASUN. It also means the Govs can't afford another loss in conference if the FCS playoffs is the goal. Walden isn't bashful about aiming high. He wants national titles in Clarksville. But he understands conference titles come first and that took a huge hit against Central Arkansas. But one bad game doesn't kill a season.
Austin Peay will regroup with two open weeks in the next three. The Govs will have two weeks to prepare for Murray State at Fortera Stadium Oct. 15 in a non-conference game, take another week off and return to ASUN action in a huge showdown at home against Jacksonville State on Oct. 29.
"Since Week 0, we've played six physical games," Walden said. "And I'm not making excuses for our guys but the truth is, you play six straight games of physical football there's going to be some wear and tear. You can see it. It's the natural ebb and flow of the season. We have to use this week to find where we're struggling and fine tune our game."
Reach sports writer George Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (931) 245-0747 and on Twitter @Cville_Sports.
This article originally appeared on Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle: Austin Peay football falls in ASUN opener to Central Arkansas, 49-20