Steve Sullivan, the play-by-play voice for University of Central Arkansas football, turned prophet early during Saturday night’s game against McNeese State at Lake Charles, La.
When the Cowboys scored to pull within 10-9 and lined up for the extra point, Sullivan said, “Every point is gonna mean something in this game.” The Cowboys promptly missed the extra point and the Bears won by one (27-26) on a 10-point flurry in the last 3:18 and a 47-yard field goal by Eddie Camara with 23.5 seconds left.
The Red Beans & Rice Bowl trophy resides in the UCA football offices for the third straight year. UCA is the only SLC team to have a lifetime series edge (4-3) over the perennial Southland Conference powers.
UCA moved to 5-2 and 3-1 in the conference, remaining a game behind 3-0 Southeastern Louisiana, whom they still have left to play.
“All our goals are still out there,” said UCA coach Clint Conque. “We have an open date at the end of the conference schedule so we have three (conference games) left where everyone else has at least four. We’re in the exact same situation (three games left with one conference defeat) that we were lat year — except last year we had to win seven straight.”
The Bears have four NCAA Division I victories. An Football Championship Subdivision team needs seven to gain the top pool of candidates for an at-large bid if it doesn’t win its conference title. All four games remaining for the Bears are Division I (including a non-conference game against Eastern Illinois at the end of the season).
“But we are feeling the effects of seven straight weeks of playing some pretty good competition starting with Ole Miss,” Conque said.
The McNeese contest has become a particularly heated rivalry in the last three years. Every game has been decided by less than a touchdown. The Cowboys (4-2) have two conference defeats by a combined total of two points (UCA and Southeastern Louisiana).
“Saturday night was very physical, very emotional, very violent with lots of hard hits on both sides,” Conque said. “I was proud of our team and coaching staff because we faced adversity during the week and during the game. We ended the game with five offensive linemen and we had to make a lot of adjustments on the fly in our kicking game because of injuries.
Offensive lineman Dominque Allen did not make the trip because of a disciplinary suspension. Lienbacker Rojae Jackson did not make the trip because of a leg injury. The Bears lost defensive backs Marvin Mitchell and Karl Brady in the first quarter, who were two key players also on special teams. Offensive line Kyle Stouffer also went down with an elbow injury.
Backup quarterback Jacoby Walker had to see his first action on special teams.
The perseverance made the victory sweeter, especially with the comeback against a perennial title contender at one of the toughest places to win in the conference.
“I always say that to win a championship, you have to steal one or two on the road,” Conque said. “We stole one, but we earned it. They didn’t give it to us. A lot of people had to make plays at different positions. A lot of things had to go right. A lot of things had to be executed properly.”
And quarterback Wynrick Smothers became the first UCA quarterback to win at McNeese State (the list includes legends Ken Collums and Nathan Brown). He also added to his resume as one of the best quarterbacks in pressure situations in UCA history. Not only did he lead two scoring drives in the last 3:18 (including a 12-yard scramble on fourth and 10 that led to a touchdown pass to Dezmin Lewis).
“We could tell in the spring and even when we recruited him that he has that makeup about him,” Conque said. “Folks are seeing on the field what we see every day. The moment is not too big for him. His mobility helps.
“Another big thing is we got a little bit of a running game going. Ninety-eight yards is not an eye-popping total but it occurred against one of the best run defenses in the country. We can’t pass every down. We had to present a threat in the run game.”
The list of accolades were numerous: linebackers Seth Allison, Justin Heard and Blake Childress, wide receivers Lewis, Jesse Grandy and Dominique Croom, running backs Terence Bobo and Jackie Hinton and punter Kevin Buford, who punted for a 43.2 average in a field position game.
INJURIES: Defensive back Marvin Mitchell is definitely out of the Lamar Game with a broken arms. Brady, Jackson and Stouffer are questionable. Because of a thin situation in the offensive line, UCA will pull the redshirt off Lance Kloker, 6-foot-5, 275. “It’s late in the year to do that, but we are out of options,” Conque said. “We’re in a fight for a championship and we have to do what we have to do to help the team.
LONG ROAD: The Bears left Thursday night for Lake Charles. Because they had to travel through some rough weather, they did not get back in Conway until 7:30 a.m. Sunday. “I was pleased with the maturity we showed in the way we handled all the adversity from the week to the travel and during the game.”