University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque says preparation for McNeese State is one of his favorite weeks of the football season.
“It puts an extra zip in my step,” he said.
The Cowboys are traditionally pick atop the Southland Conference and have won more titles than anyone. They enter Saturday night’s game at Lake Charles, La., with a 1-1 mark, the same as UCA. Realistically, it’s a fight for survival in the league race.
UCA and McNeese State are also two teams in the SLC that have a chance for eight Division I football victories, which would enhance their chances to get an at-large berth in the postseason.
“Conference championships, in any way shape or form, usually goes through Lake Charles and I think that’s still true,” Conque said. “It’s exciting to plan to play against a team that is usually the gold standard for our league.”
In a relatively short time, UCA and McNeese have formed quite as rivalry in a scrap for a traveling trophy known as the Red Beans and Rice Bowl.
The teams have played six times and the home team has won every time.
“During the open week, I’ve watched all the games from the last three years and all of them have been decided by fewer than seven points,” said McNeese State coach Matt Viator. “They all have been fantastic games. The interesting part is the last three years the losing team has had the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win.”
McNeese State won 21-17 in 2008, then UCA won 28-24 in 2010 and 21-18 last year.
“What been good about the rivalry with Central Arkansas is they are extremely well-coached and they make you beat them; they don’t tend to beat themselves,” Viator said.
Two of UCA’s assistant coaches last season, Slade Nagle and Chris Hampton, are now assistants at McNeese.
“There is a mutual respect byu both programs,” Conque said. “We recruit the same footprint and we are competitive on the field. But what also makes a rivalry is both teams have been able to win. Now, we hope to break through that road barrier.”
As is natural for a rivalry between title contenders, the game often has gotten emotional and, as Conque as termed, “chippy.”
The Bears have been plagued with an assortment of “selfish” or discipline-related penalties (such as false starts and personal fouls) the past two weeks.
“That has been a point of emphasis this week and we’re addressing that internally (with the entire team),” Conque said. “We are a young Division I program and we aren’t as big as many teams we play. We are getting there and getting there in a hurry. Traditionally, we don’t win many pregame warmups. You look over at the other team and say, ‘Whoa.” Then, you look at us and say, ‘Let’s go, boys!’
“We have to play with emotion and passion. But we also have to know when to step back and have the maturity to know when to step back and not hurt the team.”