(STATS) - The turf at Central Arkansas' Estes Stadium has purple and gray stripes, but Illinois State may have been seeing black and blue after the Bears scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to rally for a 31-24 victory in the first round of the FCS playoffs Saturday.
Antwon Wells' 4-yard touchdown run with 1:28 remaining was the game-winner, sending Central Arkansas (10-2) to a second-round matchup at No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (10-1) next Saturday.
Wells broke the 24-24 tie on the play after he turned a short catch into a 39-yard reception from quarterback Hayden Hildebrand to the Redbirds' 4.
"Very proud of the resiliency of our football team,' said UCA coach Steve Campbell said. "I thought we played extremely hard. And I thought today we had a couple of opportunities to turn and go the other way. But you know what, they kept battling and kept battling and just kept fighting"
Illinois State (6-6) led 17-7 after three quarters, but Central Arkansas' comeback started in the first minute of the fourth when George Odum blocked Reece Attard's punt deep in Redbirds' territory and Jakari Dillard scooped the ball up for a 4-yard touchdown return.
Hildebrand's 2-yard touchdown pass to Desmond Smith with 9:51 left gave the Southland Conference runner-up its first lead at 21-17. After the Bears recovered an onside kick, Matt Cummins kicked a 28-yard field goal to extend the lead to 24-17.
But Illinois State tied the game 24-24 on Jake Kolbe's second touchdown pass to Anthony Warrum, a 55-yarder with 6:22 remaining.
Hildebrand finished 18 of 36 for 268 yards and two touchdowns to Smith, throwing one interception. Smith caught six passes for 61 yards, setting Central Arkansas' career record for receiving yards (2,804) one week after he became the Bears' all-time receptions leader.
"I think the guys saw we had 15 minutes left in the season," Campbell said. "It's now or never. It's do or die time".
Illinois State, from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, was only the second team in FCS playoff history to earn an at-large bid after a 6-5 regular season.