The life of a vibrant University of Central Arkansas football season was suddenly sucked completely away Saturday afternoon on “greased pig” scramble just north of a gray stripe on First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
With his team trailing 21-15 and struggling offensively against a New Hampshire Wildcat defense with claws, quarterback Hayden Hildebrand gave the Bears, gasping on offense, a few more breaths as he drove them to the New Hampshire 36 with 1:23 left.
But, as it had all day on the sunny physically but cloudy (psychologically) day for UCA supporters, a trap door opened.
The Wildcats’ Jae’Wuan Horton forced Hildebrand to scramble and dislodged him from the ball with a tackle from behind. Hildebrand and Wildcat lineman Rick Holt engaged in a desperate crawl for possession.
“I ripped the ball out from him (Hildebrand) and hoped one of our guys would get there,” said Holt. “It went right to Jared (Kuehl) and that was the ballgame.”
Jared Kuehl did and the recovery on the UNH 21 preserved the victory over the No. 3 seed before a silenced 6,423 spectators, who witnessed a 10-game win streak and a 10-2 season come to a halt for the Bears on their home field.
“I was trying to make a play, then get the ball back somebody hit it,” said Hildebrand. “I saw Roman (Gordon) flash and was trying to flick it to him when they got me from behind. It was a big no-no for a quarterback.”
New Hampshire (9-4) advances to play at South Dakota State in the quarterfinals next week.
The Wildcats advanced by doing something UCA has done to opponents all season — rendering them one-dimensional with a defensive front that was like a concrete barrier most of the game. UCA was limited to a net of 73 yards on 34 attempts.
“Our No. 1 goal was to stop the run; we knew we had to do it,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. “We emphasized tackling all week with those backs they have. “They were pretty balanced and at times, run heavy in second- and third-down situations. We had talked all week about getting a little wider with our 3 technique (tackle) stuff and getting little more on the edge with our ends so they could have a little more freedom out there, too.”
The Wildcats were able to get pressure with a four-man front and kept things generally underneath them with the other seven. UCA had given up only six sacks all season. UNH sacked Hildebrand five times, force several scrambles and hurries and deflected several other passes, including one that was returned for a touchdown.
“We thought our pass rush, which had been good all year, could put some pressure on them as long as we got back and covered a little bit,” McDonnell said.
“Our job was to make them as uncomfortable as possible back there and I think we did a really good job of doing that today,” said Holt.
The Bears, who had been averaging more than 37 points a game, scored on a 74-yard pass from Hildebrand to Cedric Battle in the first quarter and a 78-yard pass from Hildebrand to Battle with 7:01 left but could sustain very little in between.
“I had hoped they wouldn’t be as good as I saw on film,” Campbell said. “Their inside guys I knew were really good. Then, we found out their ends were really good also. And then their linebackers could play.”
The Wildcats won with a backup quarterback (Christian Lupoli), a redshirt freshman who had played in six games previously and had completed only three of 14 passes for 16 yards. He was 8 of 10 for 63 yards and what proved to be the winning touchdowns. Starter Trevor Knight left the game at 9:06 in the second quarter with apparent concussion symptoms after being hit after an interception.
“Our guys keep doing it,” said McDonnell. “We lost a quarterback, we lost a safety, we lost a receiver and we kept going. A lot of people said we didn’t belong here. I told the kids to just go play, give their best effort and let the chips fall.”
With the score tied at 7 in a field position battle, New Hampshire’s Evan Horn turned the game around by returning a tipped pass 56 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
“I should have thrown the ball away,” said Hildebrand. “The play was covered up.”
The Bears drew within 14-9 with a safety on a bad snap in the end zone that was set up by a punt by Patrick Ponder.
Minutes later, Ponder shanked a punt 16 yards. Lupoli, using back Evan Gray (85 yards, 24 carries) behind a strong offensive line push, led a 63-yard, 11-play scoring drive. He passed 9 yards for the TD to Malik Love, who made a diving catch in the corner of the end zone.
“We run that route hundreds of times in practice and preseason with different quarterbacks,” said Love. “It was a great throw. Just awesome.”
The Wildcats nickeled and dime their way on one of the longest sustained drives (74 yards) 16 plays for their first touchdown (a 10-yard pass to Gray from Knight).
That second TD drive gave them a cushion after Battle’s second TD catch.
“It came down to a one-play game,” Campbell said. “We needed one more break, one more play and we didn’t get it.”