Austin Peay football might have had everything it needed.
Eight Division I wins. A strength of schedule ranked in the top 30 of the Football Championship Subdivision. The ninth-highest Massey Rating among FCS teams. A valiant showing against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. Heading into Saturday’s de facto United Athletic Conference championship game against Central Arkansas, the Governors had every right to feel they had done enough to deserve an at-large berth in the FCS playoffs.
Of course, APSU felt the same last November, too. The Govs’ resume wasn’t quite as impressive in 2022, but that didn’t override their disappointment when they were left out of the 24-team field.
So on Saturday, they took matters into their own hands. Austin Peay (9-2, 6-0 UAC) beat Central Arkansas 14-12 to clinch the conference’s automatic playoff bid and an outright conference championship, one week after sealing a share of the title in a 30-17 win over Utah Tech.
“Our guys trusted our training today, trusted our culture,” said APSU coach Scotty Walden. “It paid off in a big-time way.”
Instead of biting their nails, the Governors, ranked No. 12 in the FCS Coaches Poll, can breathe easy as they watch Sunday’s selection show (11:30 a.m. CT, ESPNU) at F&M Bank Arena, where they’ll learn the time and place of their next game and identity of their opponent.
If APSU doesn’t receive one of the top eight seeds in the tournament and the bye that comes with it, the Govs will play a first-round game Saturday, Nov. 25. It will be just their second-ever playoff appearance.
The two best offenses in the UAC by scoring and yardage quickly found themselves in a low-scoring nip-tuck affair. And while it wasn’t by much, Austin Peay’s defense and offense were both better than Central Arkansas’ respective units.
The Govs forced the Bears (7-4, 4-2) into three-and-outs on their first five drives and stopped them on 13 of 16 third downs they faced. UCA averaged just 3.8 yards per play. APSU held Central Arkansas’ conference-leading rushing attack to 66 yards on 23 carries and a long run of 11 yards.
Saturday’s performance was especially gratifying for Walden, who began his coaching career as an offensive coordinator and calls plays for a unit that averaged 37.4 points per game coming in, but prides himself on leading all aspects of Austin Peay football, not just the offense.
“I don’t care how we win games. We can win them 67-60, we can win them 6-3,” Walden said. “… We are a total program, and I have a total program mindset as a head coach.”
Linebacker Sam Howard was everywhere, racking up 13 tackles (1.5 for loss). Defensive back Xavier Smith had 12 stops and 1.5 TFLs. Jevon McIver had three pass breakups, two of them coming on Central Arkansas quarterback Will McElvain’s final two incompletions.
All the Govs needed on offense were two touchdowns, one right before halftime and one right after it. Mike DiLiello went 19-for-26 for 189 yards, while Jevon Jackson rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. APSU gained over half of its 244 yards on its two scoring drives.
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Last season’s playoff snub motivated Austin Peay
Austin Peay went 7-4 last season. Of the Govs’ four losses, one was a 49-20 defeat at Central Arkansas. Two were road losses to FBS teams, Western Kentucky and Alabama. The other was a home loss to Jacksonville State, which had over the FCS limit of 63 scholarships as it was beginning its transition to FBS.
The Governors felt they had a solid case due to their 7-1 record against FCS competition, but the playoff selection committee saw differently.
Walden thought the perception of the Governors as also-rans — they won only one game from 2013 to 2016 and had an all-time winning percentage of .355 coming into the season — was a reason they found themselves on the outside looking in.
“It was on our minds all season long,” Walden said. “We talked about it January, we talked about it all the way offseason to right now. That’s where the ‘break the stone’ mindset came through.
‘Break the stone’ was on my heart. We felt like the stone represented the status quo. We’re tired of being left out. We’re tired of saying almost.”
Austin Peay fans pack the Fort
APSU announced Saturday’s attendance as 9,931. It’s the second-largest crowd in the history of Fortera Stadium, which opened in 1946 as Municipal Stadium and underwent substantial renovations before the 2014 season which brought the capacity over 10,000.
The largest crowd in stadium history was the 12,201 that watched the Govs beat Tennessee State on Oct. 6, 2018. This season’s previous high attendance was 8,698 for APSU’s homecoming win over North Alabama on Oct. 28.
“I want to thank our fans,” Walden said. “Our administration, (APSU president Michael) Licari, (athletic director) Gerald Harrison did an amazing job marketing this thing.” There was a point where the refs were like, we gotta turn the music off on third down for them or something. But (the fans) were still just as loud.’ “
Jacob Shames can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.