The University of Central Arkansas Bears came close enough to upsetting Colorado University on Saturday that it really, really hurt.
“There are no moral victories, this one stung,” UCA coach Clint Conque said at Monday’s weekly Bearbacker luncheon. “Our defense played phenomenal. Phenomenal. Our special teams were phenomenal. We won the field position battle. But at the end of the day, you can’t silver-platter a team 21 points (two pick-six interceptions and a lost fumble deep at the UCA 30). I can’t fault the players or the coaches. We’ve just got to execute better.”
Conque had high praise for the effort at 5,400-plus feet at Folsom Field in Boulder.
“In my 14 years here, I’ve never had a football team play any harder,” he said. “I was inspired by their passion and the effort. But playing hard is not good enough, You have to execute under pressure and have the poise to do that.”
The Bears (1-1), who trailed 14-0 early in the second quarter, led 24-17 and were driving when the Buffaloes’ Jared Bell returned an interception of a tipped pass 79 yards to tie the score with 10:43 left. Colorado won 38-24.
“That’s a possible 14-point swing,” said Conque. “If we had gone two scores up, it would have probably made them (the Buffaloes) really nervous. The entire energy and momentum changed at that point. But our kids didn’t quit.
Slightly more than a minute later, a lost fumble at the UCA 30 led to a touchdown pass from Connor Wood to Paul Richardson to put Colorado ahead for good with 9:16 left. Colorado then drove 73 yards in 10 plays and scored on a 39-yard screen pass from Wood to Nelson Spruce to complete the 21-point onslaught within 6:19.
The Bears drove to the Colorado 20 in the final two minutes before the Buffs wrapped up the victory with an interception in the end zone off a pass from Wynrick Smothers, his third of the game and most of his career.
“Wynrick went to the right place on all three of the interceptions,” Conque said. “The first pick-six was a deflected pass. The second one, the receiver didn’t run as crisp of route as he should. The third was probably a poorly thrown ball in the end zone, but we should have probably run a different play based on the configuration we saw.”
The Buffaloes (2-0) jumped to a 14-0 lead on a 55-yard pass from Wood to Richardson, who missed last season because of injury and had his second-straight 200-yard game this season. Greg Henderson returned an interception off a tipped pass 46 yards for a score with 11:55 left in the first half.
UCA rallied to tie the score at halftime with touchdowns on a 23-yard pass from Smothers to Dezmin Lewis and an 11-yard pass from Smothers to tight end Chase Dixon, who made a superb diving catch in the end zone.
The Bears took a 17-14 lead after Dillion Winfrey returned the second-half kickoff 88 yards to the 12, leading to a 28-yard field goal by Jace Denker. They led 24-17 on Smothers’ 1-yard sneak after the Bears set up at the Colorado 24 after a forced fumble by end Markeith Gaines led to a recovery by end Jonathan Woodard.
“We could have folded our tent a couple of times,” Conque said. “We didn’t quit and were resilient. We struggled with field position early and put our defense on the field too long early. The 14-0 deficit could have broken us, but our kids played with a greater passion. From tackle to tackle, our offensive line played as well as they could given the opposition. They drove 55 yards on the big play for one touchdown and 55 yards for a field goal. They had a 73-yard drive when our defense was beaten up a bit and wore down. But that’s it. The other 21 points were gifts.
“Richardson is a bigtime receivers and he hurt us running routes we had not seen. We stoned their running game (84 yards). But we have to do a better job holding up on big-play situations.”
He praised Denker, a sophomore from Bryant, who was a game-time decision to handle the place-kicking chores after Eddie Camara was held out with a groin injury, Denker, who was three for three on extra points, even made a tackle on a kickoff. Camara’s status is uncertain for Saturday’s game against UT Martin.
“Jace Denker answered the call, as did several players,” Conque said. “When your ticket is punched, you’ve got to answer the bell and be accountable. We’ve got to be accountable in critical situations.”
The Bears lost linebacker Aum’Aire Wallace for the season because of a fractured/dislocated ankle in the third quarter.
Several other players came out limping and banged up.
“Physically, we going to be OK; we’ll put 11 healthy players on the field for UT Martin,” Conque said. “How we do mentally after this loss is he challenge. If we learn from this experience and execute in the critical situations, we can be a really, really good football team.”