College football kicks off COVID-19 era with close matchup, few fans in Alabama

AP photo by Jake Crandall / Austin Peay football interim coach Marquase Lovings leads his team onto the field at the Cramton Bowl for a game against Central Arkansas on Saturday night in Montgomery, Ala.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - With face masks (not all of them attached to helmets), social distancing and mostly empty stands, a new college football season kicked off COVID-19 style.

The Austin Peay Governors and the Central Arkansas Bears, two teams coming off Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances last fall, took the stage in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff game Saturday night in the Cramton Bowl. The Bears won 24-17, but college football was the star of the show.

"It's the first game (during) the pandemic, and so it should mean that much more to everybody. Not just the players," said Dave Dotson, whose family drove in from Texas to see son Simeon, a defensive back for the Bears of Conway, Arkansas.

Only 2,000 tickets were distributed at the 22,000-seat stadium, and there appeared to be significantly fewer fans actually attending the nationally televised game. A number of them were family members of players.

Masks were required coming into the gates, walking around the stadium and at the concession stands. Coaches and players also wore them on the sidelines.

Dave and Juliana Dotson decided to make the drive with teen sons Reuben and Ephraim - which turned into about 12 hours Friday because of Hurricane Laura-related detours - after seeing the precautions that were to be taken at the game.

"It made us feel a little better about being here," Juliana said. "It said there would be four seats in between each group and two rows, so there would be social distancing put in place."

photo AP photo by Jake Crandall / Austin Peay football fans cheer on the Governors during Saturday night's game against Central Arkansas in Montgomery, Ala.

Michael Saag, a professor of infectious diseases and associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the game would be "a good test case" for college football and other events. Both teams were tested for the coronavirus on Wednesday.

"Let's pull back to the big picture: Everything we do in this epidemic is an experiment of sorts," Saag said. "Nobody really knows what's going to happen at any event or with any type of exposure.

"We know the general principles, and I think every human being on the planet can quote line and verse about mask-wearing distance. But each situation is different. I have been awed by the power of this virus and its ability to being transmitted from person to person."

He cited the number of outbreaks already on campuses of colleges and universities in the United States.

Austin Peay, which is in Clarksville, Tennessee, didn't disclose the number of players, coaches or staffers affected by COVID-19, but athletic director Gerald Harrison posted on Twitter that the team brought 70 players as usual. The biggest name missing for the Governors was wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson, an FCS All-America second-team selection last season.

"None of the individuals representing Austin Peay in Montgomery, Alabama, tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19," Harrison wrote.

The Bears didn't have any key players fail to make the trip.

Central Arkansas coach Nathan Brown acknowledged leading up to the "week zero" game that there had been some uneasiness with going forward with a season. It was hard to avoid the news that major conferences such as the Pac-12 and Big Ten of the Power Five, the upper tier of the Football Bowl Subdivision, opted against playing this fall.

So did the Southland Conference, to which the Bears belong, but its members were given the option to pursue games against opponents outside of the league. Saturday's contest was the first of nine scheduled dates for the program.

"This season was hanging on a thread, and we knew that we had to do things right and we knew that our players had to truly buy in to that," Brown said. "As a human being, you're naturally going to go through the emotions of what you see and what you feel.

"But what I encouraged our guys to do was not pay attention to social media, pay attention to what's right in front of you in Conway, Arkansas, at the University of Central Arkansas and base your judgment on that. And I think we've handled things well."

Austin Peay has just two more games on its schedule, trips to FBS programs Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Fans and teams - and college football in general - are hoping for a positive outcome for both players and those who sat in the stands for game one of the COVID-19 experiment.

The first glitch came when Austin Peay freshman CJ Evans scored on a 75-yard touchdown run on the opening play from scrimmage. The referee's mic was live when he said an expletive followed by the word "mask."

photo AP photo by Jake Crandall / Austin Peay freshman CJ Evans takes off on a 75-yard touchdown run against Central Arkansas on the first play from scrimmage of the 2020 college football season Saturday night in Montgomery, Ala.

The family of Austin Peay's Geordon Pollard drove down from Birmingham to see the starting wide receiver and his team play. George, the wide receiver's father, is used to being around people during the pandemic for his job at a car manufacturing plant and said he had no reservations.

"Ready to get out of the house," Pollard said. "Ready for college football to kick off."

As for the game, Lujuan Winningham caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Breylin Smith with 34 seconds left to lift the Bears to the win.

Austin Peay had taken the lead on quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall's 1-yard touchdown run and Cole Deeds' extra-point kick with 1:40 left.

Oatsvall again moved the Govs across midfield in the final seconds with a 25-yard pass to Eugene Minter, and then the quarterback ran 19 yards on fourth-and-10. His desperation heave on the final play was intercepted by Tamaurian Wilson near the goal line.

Smith completed 26 of 49 passes for 283 yards but threw two interceptions. Kierre Crossley ran 12 times for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Evans ran for 98 yards for Austin Peay, including his score.

Smith had quickly led the Bears down the field for the go-ahead touchdown, completing five of six passes for 73 yards before hitting Winningham in the left corner of the end zone. Central Arkansas converted the 2-point play on Smith's pass to Sam Camargo.