Austin Peay vs. Central Arkansas: 3 things we learned from the return of college football

MONTGOMERY?— It wasn't always certain that we would make it to this point, and it's not certain how long we stay here.

But on Saturday, at least for one night, we had college football.

Central Arkansas defeated Austin Peay, 24-17 in the FCS Kickoff Classic at Cramton Bowl in the first game of the COVID-19 era.

The four-quarter affair was ultimately decided by a frantic final few minutes. The Governors, who looked lost on offense through most of the second half, struck for the go-ahead touchdowns on?a 1-yard run by quarterback Jeremiah Oatvall with 1:40 remaining.

Bears quarterback Breylin Smith responded by leading a six-play, 78-yard drive capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass to Lujuan Winningham, which proved to be the game-winner after Austin Peay's last-ditch effort to send the game to overtime ended with an interception on the final play.

a group of football players playing a football game: Austin Peay State's quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall (6) looks to pass during the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. Austin Peay State leads Central Arkansas 10-6 at halftime. © Jake Crandall/ Advertiser Austin Peay State's quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall (6) looks to pass during the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. Austin Peay State leads Central Arkansas 10-6 at halftime.

Here are three things we learned:

1. The atmosphere is going to feel very different this season

a group of people standing next to a wire fence: Fans begin to arrive as Central Arkansas and Austin Peay State warm up before the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. © Jake Crandall/ Advertiser Fans begin to arrive as Central Arkansas and Austin Peay State warm up before the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.

Playing college football during the COVID-19 pandemic didn't come without sacrifice.

Some of the best elements of college football?were missing Saturday. Neither school's marching band made the trip to Montgomery. Central Arkansas brought nine cheerleaders, but they had to stay in the stands rather than be on the sideline.

During the national anthem, the field was devoid of everyone except reporters and photographers. The bleachers felt empty, too?— despite seating 25,000, Cramton Bowl allowed only 2,000 fans to attend Saturday's game. They sat spread out in small family groups. The public address reminded them often to stay socially distanced and wear their masks at all times.

ESPN's announcers weren't?there?—?Matt Barrie and?Mike Golic, Jr. called the game from the studio in Bristol, Connecticut.

It was different, for sure. Raucous atmospheres and pregame pageantry are part of what make college football great. However...

2. Any?football is better than no football

On the first play from scrimmage in the first game of the 2020 season, Austin Peay running back?CJ Evans took an option pitch from Oatsvall and weaved 75 yards through the Central Arkansas for a touchdown.

Evans is a true freshman from Mobile. He scored on the first play of his college career in his home state. That's a script you can't write.

And it was just the start of a roller coaster first half. Austin Peay's second drive ended with a minus-12-yard punt after a bad snap, which was one of three it had in the game. Central Arkansas' first two drives ended with failed fourth-down conversion attempts. Smith threw two interceptions, including one in the end zone.

After one of them, cameras caught Governors linebacker Jack McDonald celebrating with a touchdown top hat and cane with a gold dollar sign on top. Cameras also caught Bears tight end Jack Short lowering his shoulder to truck a fan on the Austin Peay sideline. Those are the types of moments that make the sport so fun.

At the end of the day, it was not a particularly well-played game for about 56 minutes. Oatsvall, a quarterback, finished?with nearly as many punts (seven) as he did passing completions (14). Neither team averaged more than 5.8 yards per play. They combined for four fumbles (two?lost) and a 7?for 33?mark trying to convert third downs.

But it was competitive to the end and had a great finish, and that's really all fans can ask for.

3. No one knows exactly what comes next

Few teams better exemplify the uniqueness of the 2020 college football season than the two?that played Saturday.

Austin Peay is playing only three games this fall (at Pittsburgh on Sept. 12 and at Cincinnati on Sept. 19) after the Ohio Valley Conference postponed fall sports. The Southland Conference also postponed its fall season, but Central Arkansas still scheduled nine games, including a pair of home-and-homes (Eastern Kentucky and Missouri State).

Both teams seemed to handle COVID-19 pandemic coming into the game. It seems only one regular from either side did not make the trip to Montgomery (Governors?wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson), though it's not clear why?— Austin Peay?athletics director Gerald Harrison said in a press release that he was "unable to comment on any individual student-athlete’s health or well-being."

But that's only the first game. Central Arkansas will stay in-state before its second game of the season at UAB on Thursday. It will undergo another round of COVID-19 testing Monday. It's anyone's guess as to what comes next?— this is all uncharted territory.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email,?click here. If you enjoy Josh's coverage, consider a digital subscription that will give you access to all of it.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Austin Peay vs. Central Arkansas: 3 things we learned from the return of college football

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