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8 takeaways from FCS opening night

(Photo by Randy Bergeron/SLU Sports Info)

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - The Southland Conference didn't just have the top story in the FCS Thursday night, it had the second-best one as well.

Actually, Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana wrote equally impressive story lines. They should be more than happy to share top billing.

Their big wins on opening night in the FCS suggested so many thrills are ahead this season.

Here are eight takeaways from the big night:

- Central Arkansas recorded the season's first FCS win over an FBS program, scoring 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for a 35-28 triumph over Western Kentucky. Quarterback Breylin Smith returned from injury last season to throw for 324 yards and three touchdowns and running back Carlos Blackman had a game-tying 80-yard TD pass and a go-ahead 1-yard scoring run in just over a 3-minute span in the fourth. The Bears were rocked by the dismissal of All-America defensive lineman Chris Terrell on the eve of preseason camp, but coach Nathan Brown's program has forged on because there's no other way in the deep Southland. Said Brown afterward: "I thought our guys fought, they believed in our plan."

- After a disappointing debut last season, Year 2 of the Frank Scelfo era at Southeastern Louisiana got off to a rousing start as the Lions hammered sixth-ranked Jacksonville State 35-14. Shawntrez Spates' early interception of Gamecocks quarterback Zerrick Cooper led to a touchdown in the first two minutes and Ferlando Jordan picked off Cooper with a 65-yard scoring return. It made Cooper's 40 completions and 410 passing yards a bit inconsequential. Since the start of the 2014 season, the Gamecocks are 38-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference, but only 14-12 out of conference.

- Two conferences without great history against the FBS had valiant efforts. Wagner fell short at UConn 24-21 in its 10th attempt against the FBS, which dropped the Northeast Conference to 0-16 overall. The Southwestern Athletic Conference hasn't enjoyed an FBS win since 1985, but 42½-point underdog Alabama State came close to an upset in falling to UAB 24-19 before a raucous crowd a Birmingham's Legion Field.

- Third-ranked South Dakota State failed to hold on to a fourth-quarter lead and lost 28-21 at Minnesota. New quarterback J'Bore Gibbs (one passing TD, one rushing TD) did enough to suggest he will settle in fine as he replaces Taryn Christion, the Missouri Valley's all-time leader in total offense, passing yards and passing touchdowns. Trey Lance, it's your turn next at North Dakota State.

- In a matchup of new coaches, Chattanooga's Rusty Wright got the upper hand on Eastern Illinois' Adam Cushing as the Mocs won 24-10. Their punt coverage recovered a first-quarter fumble to set up a touchdown and All-America wide receiver Bryce Nunnelly had a 59-yard scoring reception as part of a 100-yard performance. Wright, a UTC alum and a former assistant before he went to Georgia State for two seasons, challenged his squad at halftime and it responded with a second-half shutout.

- In the 25th anniversary season of the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award, Southeast Missouri senior linebacker Zach Hall clearly intends to join former Appalachian State linebacker Dexter Coakley (first two awards in 1995-96) as the second two-time recipient. Hall racked up 19 tackles with a sack in No. 17 SEMO's 44-26 win over rival Southern Illinois in the "War of the Wheel."

- Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus was pressured at times, but he still enjoyed a solid return with 290 passing yards and two touchdown scores to Brandon Porter in the Lumberjacks' 37-23 win over Missouri State to open the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge. New coach Chris Ball earned his first win. Cookus has had two season-ending injuries, but he's phenomenal when healthy as evidenced by his 76 career touchdown passes to 14 interceptions.

- UNH Insider on Thursday updated how strong emotions are swirling at New Hampshire as the CAA team prepares for its Sept. 7 opener at Holy Cross without the face of the program, 21st-year coach Sean McDonnell, who earlier this week took a leave of absence to deal with health issues. Senior linebacker and captain Michael Balsamo mentioned the "big hole" in the program. The Wildcats are rallying for McDonnell under interim coach Ricky Santos. After Tuesday's practice, Santos said, "The message beforehand was that this is all about leaving this place better than it was before and having a place where Coach Mac wants to come back to and that's everybody's goal, his goal included, to make sure he can come back and coach and finish this thing on his terms."

Updated August 30, 2019

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